08 July 2010

Emergence, Patternicity and "The Wave": Are we all crazy?

After reading Emergence by Steven Johnson, I was left wondering why we have so much trouble abandoning the watchmaker metaphor--which Johnson refers to as "the myth of the ant queen"--and accepting the idea that nature can regulate itself.  Patterns occur in nature because individuals make decisions based on what's right next to them, and these decisions average out into big trends.  Take ants (of course) for example: one forager ant meets five other ants that smell like foragers, and she decides to switch to nest maintenance.  This tiny decision, when scaled up, creates an enduring ratio of foragers to nest maintenance workers in the colony that can last for decades.  Yet we still can't drop the image of the dictatorial queen!

My own graduate work is on how people conceptualize things that are really, really big.  So of course my first guess for what obstacle might be keeping our brains from accepting emergence was the scale necessary for the phenomenon to be possible. For example, let's say that one forager ant met five forager ants by accident, and she switched to nest maintenance unnecessarily. On a local level, that ant is going against the pattern. But when decisions about what job to do are made by hundreds or even thousands of ants, a stable ratio emerges. In the same way, there are always a dozen or so drunk baseball fans who throw up their arms too early or too late as "The Wave" moves around Dodger Stadium.   But on a scale of thousands of Dodgers fans deciding individually when to throw their hands up, a stable wave pattern emerges that moves fluidly through the stands.  We struggle to extrapolate this phenomenon to nature because, outside of sporting events, we don't usually hang around with tens of thousands of other humans.

But even if we shy away from the statistics of the scale behind emergence, why are we so quick to run to myth of the fascist ant queen? The imaginary mental command center? Intelligent design? On a hike a few weeks ago, I asked this question of my mother over and over, but neither of us could come up with an explanation that I found satisfactory.

This week, I watched two videos that began to address my questions about why we believe the things we believe. The first was sent to me by my eighth grade Humanities teacher, Glenn, who always gives me the best recommendations. The video is narrated by the late great Carl Sagan, a lifelong hero of mine, and takes the form of a meditation on humanity's relationship with the Universe. Sagan talks about the historic view that we are at the center of everything, and our enduring insistence that the Universe was built just for us. He uses the metaphor of Eden to explain the role of science in relationship to the Universe, and the role science should take as we move forward.

The second video was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine. It is a recording of a lecture given by Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptic's Society. I have been a Shermer fan since grade school, when my parents would take me to his lectures at Caltech. (In an aside, my mother interviewed Shermer recently, and she told me that he mentioned the phenomenon of emergence in his discussion of beliefs about the afterlife). In the lecture, Shermer explains that we have a natural tendency to see patterns where there might not be anything, a phenomenon he refers to as "patternicity." Patternicity, argues Shermer, is a reaction that humans evolved in order to protect ourselves. The example he gives is that of a rustle in the grass, which may or may not be a deadly predator. Although it is far more likely that the rustle is just a trick of the wind, assuming the existence of the predator is a safer bet if you don't want to end up as somebody else's dinner.

Shermer also points out that the tendency to see patterns around us is associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. High levels of dopamine, if I remember correctly from Psych 101, are found in those psychiatric patients (typically paranoid schizophrenics) who see patterns in their everyday lives that lead them to believe that some person or organization is conspiring against them. Think Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001).  But seeing more patterns than usual isn't always considered diagnosable. Shermer points out that dopamine is also associated with creativity and expression.  Perhaps history's most talented artists were just born a little more "patternistic" than the rest of us.

This is all theoretical, as any claim about cognitive evolution is practically impossible to prove. But Shermer makes a lot of sense to me, and I think there's something to be said for our brains' instinctual drive to see patterns in practically everything, even where presumably no pattern exists.

As I sit here, contemplating what I consider to be an obvious pattern in human behavior, I wonder if my own patternicity isn't getting the better of me.  Do we really reject emergence over and over and over, in favor of the ant queen, the city planner, the hidden conductor?  Are we wired to believe that there must be a watchmaker? Or am I seeing predators hidden in the grass, where really there is only the rustle of the wind...


Pandora's Mind said...

This is really interesting! I actually thought about this a lot in the framework of studying religion and neuroscience in tandem. What I've been thinking about a lot lately is that we as a species are obsessed with asking "why?" and the most scientific to the most religious of us (not to say that is always a black and white spectrum, but bear with me) are convinced that there is necessarily an answer that can be satisfying in any way-- whereas lately I've been of the mind that there is no reason for existence. Nihilistic, huh?

zbuck said...

Haha, I don't think that's nihilistic at all! One popular stance for the spiritual (not ubiquitous, but popular)is that science "takes all the mystery out of everything." On the contrary, I believe strongly that the more we discover about something, the more fascinating and mysterious it becomes. There is no satisfying answer to any good why, and that what makes it fun!