Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

No single neuron in our brains is self-aware. Nor is any neuron aware of the brain’s system of organization. Individually, a neuron is useless. Even 10 or 100 neurons are not very useful. But wire a billion of them together (a critical mass) and you have consciousness. Yet consciousness is not a quality possessed by neurons. This phenomenon is known as emergence.

In other words, emergence is the phenomenon in which simple organisms (or atoms/cells/units) self-organize themselves into different and more complex systems with new “emergent” properties that do not naturally occur in the individual organisms (or atoms/cells/units).

Ant colonies are also examples of emergent phenomenon. No single ant has the cognitive ability to envision, design, or build a colony. And yet ant colonies are “designed” with tunnels, chambers, larders, nurseries, dumps for waste, and cemeteries for the dead – all without the aid of committees, architects, or blueprints. And get this: the cemeteries are always the furthest possible distance from the colony, and the dump is always the furthest possible distance from both the colony and the cemetery at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief, the queen does not order other ants around and tell them what to do and where to go. In fact, no one is in charge. And yet ant colonies respond appropriately to changes in their environment and social structure. For example, as the population grows, foraging increases accordingly. Ants will also map the shortest and most efficient route between a food source and the colony. What’s more, successful ant colonies can exist for up to 15 years, yet no single ant lives more than a year, except for the queen. So how do they pull this off?

Well, read the book to find out!

I highly recommend Emergence. Not only is it an interesting subject (though I did skip much of the chapters that talked about software and gaming phenomenon, because I find that less interesting), but it is also a very well-written book, too. Johnson is a very competent writer who exhibits a clean, focused, and accessible style.

I’m uploading a scan of chapter two for you below, and here are some external links (in no particular order):

Steven Berlin Johnson – Official Site

Steven Berlin Johnson – On Wikipedia

The book on Amazon.com

Emergence on Wikipedia

Santa Fe Institute

Society of Mind

The Ants, by E. O. Wilson

The Leaf-Cutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct, by E. O. Wilson

Adventures Among Ants, by Mark Moffett

John Bonner’s Slime Mold Movies

NOVA | Emergence


Here's some videos:




Tags: ants, brain, consciousness, emergence, mind, science, slime mold, software, technology

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Replies to This Discussion

i've always liked swarm theory, and the idea that seemingly random events in large enough numbers can average out. i'm actually surprised the religious haven't latched onto the laws of probability as a scientific "proof" of whichever god they want to push, because the laws of probability are downright creepy sometimes with how ordered they make things appear.
I'm not sure I'd use the word "creepy," but they are certainly awe-inspiring. This self-organization is what gives life the illusion of design.
not just life, it was the apparent organisation of inanimate matter that created life to begin with. the fact that a stream of poured sand, a bunch of grains falling randomly, will form a cone shape just as well as if they were individually stacked according to a plan. very effectively creates an illusion of design, though it actually makes me think it's design itself that might be the illusion.

This is a must-see. -- Dallas



How nature transforms simplicity into complexity

In The Secret Life of Chaos, a Furnace film for BBC 4, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science – how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It’s a mind bending, counterintuitive and for many people, deeply troubling idea. But over a breathtaking sixty minutes Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of the beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly it turns out that the mathematics of Chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing? You don’t need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans – once you’ve seen The Secret Life of Chaos you’ll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.


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