About Emergence

Every human culture is really just an extension of the underlying culture known as nature —Robert Bringhurst

Preamble In recent decades, earth-systems scientists and others have made considerable progress in elucidating the primary operating principles that inform Gaian process. Though the concept of emergence – the idea that the whole is other than the sum of the parts – has been long in place, it is only now coming into prominence as a unifying principle across an array of scientific disciplines.

A key feature of emergent entities is the possession of properties that cannot be traced to the constituent parts and that are at the same time resistant to reliable prediction. Emergence is thus the source of all that is novel in the Living World and much that is “mystical”.

Crucially, emergent properties are what we experience when we interact with living things in the normal way, from the outside. Reductionist science, by contrast, looks at things from the inside, moving from the parts toward the whole, resulting in an altogether different take on things. Emergence thus appears to have important implications for taking the measure of things in the Pandoracene.

First Approximation


he principle now called emergence was first documented by Aristotle 2300 years ago. Indeed, its best-known formulation – the whole is other than the sum of its parts – comes down from him. In scientific parlance, emergence is what happens when a complex system at lower state of organization undergoes a phase transition to a higher state of organization: suddenly something exists that did not exist before.

lightbulb idea bubble

What’s key about the emergent whole is its possession of properties that can’t be traced to its constituent parts – that on the one hand, and the impossibility of reliably predicting those properties ahead of time on the other. A lichen, for example, has emergent properties – form, chemistry, desiccation tolerance, etc. – never seen in the fungus or alga that comprise it. This is why my own preferred formulation of emergence, as of most other important concepts, is the top-down one: the properties of the whole are other than the properties of the parts.

Seen from the outside, emergence is all around us. When a Reindeer Lichen elaborates a new branch, that’s emergent behaviour relative to the conversations going on between its parts. When I sit down to rest in the forest, that’s emergent behaviour relative to the millions of synapses firing in my brain. So ubiquitous is emergence that it’s all but invisible to us. The reason is life itself, its hierarchic structure. The simple imaginative act of moving from one life level upward to the next – from the cell, say, to the organ, or from the organ to the body, what you see is an emergent form: a phase transition from a lower level of organization to a higher. Ditto, by the way, the brain to a thought.

For the most part, and until very recently, science largely overlooked emergence. The reason is that reductionist science is about things quantifiable, whereas emergence is about things relational, hence more readily mapped than converted into the terms of an equation.

Even E. O. Wilson was at a loss here – even if he didn’t quite realize it. In his 2006 book, The Creation, he argued for recognition of two fundamental laws of biology: evolutionary process for one, and the insight that “all known properties of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry” for another. Still, there was a glitch, and a big one: life’s properties don’t actually yield to direct physicochemical explanation. Why? Because they’re emergent – a point Wilson emphasizes while at the same time downplaying it as a matter of not enough computing power. Few scientists today hold this view.

Emergence also operates at the level of the mind. Indeed, every word you speak bubbles up “magically” – an emergent outcome of a hopelessly complex system of synapses that allow of no prior knowledge, individually or collectively, of the word itself. Crucially, it’s unlikely in the extreme that even AI will ever disentangle the deep mystery of emergence; though time will tell.

There are many reasons to be aware of emergence, but three in particular stand out.

First, the existence of emergent outcomes suggests that a focus on the outward “shape” of the Living World is likely, on average, to brings us into closer alignment with it than detailed analysis of its highly complex internal functioning. For convenience I refer to this former “philosophical” style of focus as top-down, and to its scientific counterpart as bottom-up. Consistent with this thesis, it is perhaps not surprising that the primarily top-down understanding of the Living World by Traditional Peoples yielded practices of respect that are now, in the Pandoracene, showing their value as correctives to the resourcist attitudes associated with the bottom-up approaches of western society. Putting this a little provocatively, one might stay that a top-down focus is chiefly about understanding whereas a bottom-up focus is primarily about power. In any case, and for the purposes of this website, my own focus is the outward shape of things.

Second, as an emergent, Gaia itself is unlikely to operate in ways always readily visible to constituent members of the biosphere like ourselves. Certainly this aligns well with the history of Climate Change to date, which in large part consists of a series of meteorological “surprises” that have needed to be explained after the fact. What is perhaps unsettling about this is its implications for the predictive reliability of climate simulations published by IPCC. The ability to make accurate predictions is of course cornerstone to western science.

Finally, there’s the quote that opened this essay, which claims that human cultures are extensions of natural process. Surely this must be true of traditional human cultures, yet its applicability to modern cultures sustained by advanced technologies of ever-increasing power is open to question. For my part, the recent onset of the Pandoracene seems to count as powerful evidence that Homo sapiens exceeded the bounds of natural process long ago. In a similar vein, it’s worth noting that a recent study of technology as a geological phenomenon (Haff 2013) suggested that the technosphere now functions as a quasi-autonomous system whose dynamics constrains the behaviour of its human parts.

To say this another way, Homo technologicus appears to be undergoing, or to have already undergone, an emergent phase shift to something never before seen in the history of this world – a technospecies capable at biological (rather than geologic) timescales of perturbing Gaia’s sustaining planetary systems quite beyond recognition.

This seems to me a point worth bearing in mind as we attempt to chart a path forward.

Next up: Concerning Earth