If there was a simple meaning of the often-used scientific term “emergence,” then 100-plus scientists wouldn’t have spent four days presenting, debating and not infrequently disagreeing about what it was.
But as last month’s organizers of the Earth-Life Science Institute’s “Comparative Emergence” symposium in Tokyo frequently reminded the participants, those debates and disputes are perfectly fine and to be expected given the very long history and fungibility of the concept.
At the same time, ELSI leaders also clearly thought that the term can have resonance and importance in many domains of science, and that’s why they wanted practitioners to be exposed more deeply to its meanings and powers.
Emergence is a concept commonly used in origins of life research, in complexity and artificial life science; less commonly in chemistry, biology, social and planetary sciences; and — originally – in philosophy. And in the 21st century, it is making a significant comeback as a way to think about many phenomena and processes in the world.
So what is “emergence?” Most simply, it describes the ubiquitous and hugely varied mechanisms by which simple components in nature (or in the virtual or philosophical world) achieve more complexity, and in the process become greater than the sum of all those original parts.
The result is generally novel, often surprising, and sometimes most puzzling – especially since emergent phenomena involve self-organization by the more complex whole.
Think of a collection of ants or bees and how they join leaderless by the many thousands to make something – a beehive, an ant colony – that is entirely different from the individual creatures.
Think of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen gases which make liquid water. Think of the folding of proteins that makes genetic information transfer possible. Think of the processes by which bits of cosmic dust clump and clump and clump millions of times over and in time become a planetesimal or perhaps a planet. Think of how the firing of the billions of neurons in your brain results in consciousness.… Read more