A principle underlying the increasing complexity of the universe. At a critical point of joining constituent parts together, a new WHOLE pops into existence that isn’t like the parts. That may not sound THAT important, but this pattern built Physics, Chemistry, and Life itself; it shows no signs of stopping. More = Different.
The behavior of ball bearings as they self assemble under an electric field They seem alive, reaching for each other to form emergent structures. In fact, it’s how the molecules in living cells work, just on a larger scale.
Compare to this single brain cell searching for connections:
It doesn’t pay to make grand conclusions based on similar appearances, but this shows the patterns driving all of our living cells and probably something elemental about the nature of evolution itself.
This graphic tracks the evolving, cross-pollinating disciplines of Complexity science, also called complex systems science. They are an essential and transformational course correction against the scientific tradition of oversimplifying virtually everything in order to avoid overstating ANYTHING. In fairness, you have to have a lot of information about a lot of different things before you can apply the lessons of complex systems.
“There’s no love in a carbon atom, No hurricane in a water molecule, No financial collapse in a dollar bill.”
– Peter Dodds
Below is a brilliantly straightforward exploration of many of these concepts
What you are made of?
This very accessible, kid-friendly video is about understanding the Human Microbiome.
Your body is made of trillions of cells, specifically, human cells. Around the beginning of the 21st century, scientists learned that the human body contains many trillions more microbial cells. This is the microbiome: the collection of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and other microbes) living in and on the human body. It has been part of us, evolving, interacting, and helping to determine our fate as organisms, since before the emergence of the human species itself. Scientists have known about the presence of microorganisms on and in the human body since the discovery of E. coli, but recognizing the importance of the microbiome is very recent.
There are 10 times more cells from microorganisms like bacteria and fungi in and on our bodies than there are human cells. Scientists increasingly recognize that these microorganisms have a huge influence on our health. An imbalance of unhealthy and healthy microbes in the intestines may contribute to weight gain, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and other disorders. We now know that gut microbiota also affects our mood, anxiety levels, stress resilience, and depression.
Besides general interest, this is about understanding your dual existence as 1. A singular person in the world, and 2. As a gigantic mobile colony made of millions of cooperating cells many of which are “guest workers” here to make a living, but not really part of you.
You are an ecosystem.
Credit to artist Ben Arthur by way of NPR
Emergence is the main element of the structure of reality that I trumpet on this site.
But one essential aspect of emergence is another core concept called Holons. Emergence is a big, fat general principle and holons are distinct, measurable parts of it. This gem of a concept was created by the wonderful free-range philosopher Arthur Koestler, an under-appreciated thinker of the 20th century. Once you have this lens in place, many things reveal their true nature with delightful clarity. I’ve written about Holons before, but not for a while so here’s a refresher.
It begins with this: Everything is simultaneously a part and a whole. Thus “Holon”.
Every level of reality/physical existence is self-contained and self-absorbed. For example, the atomic level, the cellular level, and the level of animal species. Each one is an emergent property of the/a previous level. Each one a surprise bouquet from the magician’s sleeve. The lower level is the part, the upper level is the whole. Each is both part and whole, depending on which way you are moving and looking. Generally, these levels are like parallel lines apparently never meeting yet wholly dependent on each other. There is no handshake and nod from the next level down. They don’t know that we are up here and except for humanity, we (animal species) don’t know they are down there. This sounds a bit like the description of dimensions in the multiverse theory, these dimensions are happening in the same place and the same time but unaware of each other, separated by a veil of sorts.
There appears to be a universal rule though, that each layer acts for the good of the layer above. Every layer of constituent parts shows a real dedication to their work and the greater good of something they are utterly blind to. They are blind to it, but something mysterious and quite other may not be, or else why this consistent rule? Why the consistent effort to obey it?
This scientific initiative fucking THRILLS me.
“Logic of Life is an initiative that unifies world-leading quantitative research in the life and life-inspired sciences in Switzerland with a bold aim: To identify the rules of life that drive emergence and self-organization at all biological scales, such as the appearance of variation, the formation of spatial patterns, the division of labor, and the creation of robustness. This will address one of the biggest missing links in our current understanding of life, namely how scales are connected. Knowing these rules will revolutionize the translation of biological findings into products, services, and treatments that benefit our society”. https://www.logicoflife.ch/
The math that drives at least some emergence:
For heaven’s sake…watch one fucking minute of the video below or so help me…you’ll miss something amazing.
If the title is confusing, I apologize. Emergence is a huge focus of my writing and explained in depth elsewhere in the site. A short version is: Emergence is when a new and surprising result emerges from grouping enough of almost anything together. The effect doesn’t resemble the individuals it emerges from. The things being grouped in this video are individual Starlings, the grouping is their seasonal flocking behavior. The emergent effect is the murmuration, the huge, shapeshifting display of their collective flight. No bird is in charge, the effect is bottom up as the individual birds react to each other yet we see what feels very much like a huge excited individual playing in the sky.
Every organism has a survival strategy. Survival strategies are species and subspecies templates for living. They describe a specialized role within an ecological niche. Their roles are defined by exploiting a particular angle on making a living and by the adaptations of their bodies toward this goal. The amazing anteater for example makes a living…anyone? Anyone? Correct, eating ants. And has adapted in an amusingly specialized way with powerful claws for ripping into nests and long sticky tongue.
That is a deep, deep commitment to eating ants. But not really any deeper a commitment than most other species: The overall species strategy is a highly specialized job with a body increasingly adapted as a tool to do that job.
But not us. We are constantly looking for new angles to play and new ways to play them. In pursuit of that goal, we may vary our focus, lifestyle, and ecological niche. But except for phenotypic variations based on local weather, our bodies don’t adapt. We don’t specialize via our bodies, we specialize via technology: A spear is a 7-foot long claw that can fly. Well sewn clothing is a thick warm pelt, opening our way toward the ice caps. Horses turn us into ten-foot-tall monsters moving at the speed of antelopes. Farming is a “Game of Life” survival cheat code the levels us up. Sufficient change in technology equals a virtual shift of species with an altered template for life.
Our technology transforms us personally and as social animals. The rules for hunter-gatherers are not the rules for farming villages. We reorganize ourselves in a bottom-up that unpacks itself through the individual daily actions of each human playing the new game. Pyramids and kings pop into being from the right tools and population sizes. Each shift redefines the group size that we consider to be: Us. Ourselves. Are we 50 people, a thousand people, a million people? Ask the tools, they make the rules.
When the human community becomes large enough and complex enough it becomes a virtual ecosystem unto itself. The specialized work of individuals mirrors the variety of organisms in a wild ecosystem. Enough complexity makes a self sustaining virtual ecology. AT least until the robots throw us all out of work.
Cultural Variation as a strategy
Every human group that can define as “US” creates culture. That culture expresses local traits with one unique voice. Varieties of approaches to mating, religious dogma, openness to outsiders, etc. equal a real-time experiment in how successful these traits are as a human survival strategy. The values for these different traits emerge from the tension force within the community. Authoritarianism is a strategy, so is liberal democracy, so is theocracy. Winning could mean stability or expansion. I call this expansionist trait “Virality”. One culture may make it’s people happy and healthy but virally dominant cultures can take them over.
(That’s draft one. As usual, if you found this intriguing check back once in a while. I do update and re-write.)
It’s hilarious how much cultural “values”, the dos and don’ts, are exactly like the preferences and peccadilloes of a particular person. These Japanese “no-no”s sound like a description of things that one random person might have very strong feelings about… but in fact, a whole country is ready to be very disappointed in you.
You have your likes and dislikes; your quirks and peccadillos. Put enough of them together in a somebody and you have a personality. You and your love have a relationship, with predominating moods and flavors, things you both love and hate, as recognizable to both of you as each others faces. That is the personality of your relationship and you could almost call it a culture of two. You and your family have a kind of extended self, absolutely made of individuals, but having a corporate nature. Again, moods, styles, activities, and traditions: The personality of your family: The culture of us, ourselves.
Your town and state have cliches and classic types, local foods, music, religions, sports, and jokes. Your area may even have unique social faux pas. You have your classic regional moods, so well defined that Hollywood can set a story in your area as shorthand for the tone of the movie. Your country likewise has these same locally famous traits but pulled from many distant points and due to this diversity, the warmth of these traits is much more diffuse. Americans from Maine might enjoy funny Florida cliches but they don’t evoke the tenderness of good old home-cooked cliches. These taste of home because they are the personality of your region: The self that you are actually a piece of even when parted. If you have been away a long time from the place that is unquestionably your home, odds are that the sight of some hideous local billboard or despised local celebrity might well thrill you and soften your heart. This is you, a tiny particle of that place sensing the correct SELF of belonging and yearning toward it.
Culture is personality flowing bottom-up from a community. It’s the basket holding that composite soul together and in place. It is also the background that makes outsiders visible against it. It’s the recognizable border between us and them. Humans produce culture as naturally as spiders weave webs. The tension force within the culture creates the tone of inclusion tempering exclusion and vice versa. Tension force determines the “temperature” of how cold or warm the welcome is to outsiders.
I don’t associate warm with progressives and cold with conservatives as a political bias, but in this context, conservatism means suspicion, standoffishness or even hostility. Conservatives play the role in the cultural ecosystem of tightening the borders while progressives loosen them. And it isn’t always about a literal border, the border can be about how purely insiders display their cultural loyalty. It can be about disapproving of behaviors becoming less hidebound to cultural authority (often acted out by grumpy old people). Either wing, without the other, is dangerously out of balance. Either wing, deprived of this balancing opposing force, becomes a runaway monster seeking enemies within when it can’t find them without. That’s how desperately important opposition really is. When deprived of it the isolated wing has a panic attack and seeks everywhere for enemies to counter itself. The steady opposition between a healthy left and right results in a cooperative outcome: A tension force that protects the community from the weaknesses of each. This is the community organism as a healthy individual with a well-balanced nature.
Donald Trump is the perfect president for this moment, in fact, it’s uncanny.
Obviously not in a good way.
I talk a lot about complexity on this blog. Complexity changes things in incremental ways until there comes a POP of some new emergent thing which is categorically different than all the things it is made of. In fact, that IS Emergence. You can not look at any organism without seeing just such a result. As usual, I’m asking you to put up with me talking about things that appear crushingly obvious.
But listen, single-celled organisms lived contentedly, I’m guessing, for a multiple BILLION years without once feeling the desire to fuck. Suddenly fucking became a fad, a craze. Everybody was sharing genetic material and things got WEIRD. Suddenly there were strangers moving in all around with a bunch of different characteristics. The good old simple ways were gone. Sex was the first sacrifice of autonomy and the first cooperation of individuals making something new and sharing risks and benefits. That’s right. They were cells with benefits.
And then more complex cooperations in the form of more and more complex organisms began to cover the world. But each new multicell organism and lifestyle was a gamble and a loss of autonomy. And there were cells that said “Hell No!” They stuck to the good old proven ways as they have to this day.
Cooperating to build something more complex is the story of evolution. Human beings in their journey to now have reinvented their understanding of “My Group” over and over. This redefining requires flexibility toward the borders of the self. If someone creepy and unattractive asks you to share life’s journey, you pull away, securing your borders. You might say “No thank you” or “Back the hell off!”. Because in so very many ways you don’t want any sharing or blending with them. But even a new friend who takes too much for granted about how good friends you are will elicit at least a bit of the same response. We are scornful when someone suggests an “Us” that we feel is a bad fit. Who we are with is who we are…at least that is it feels inside us, and how we will behave operationally for the life of the contract.
And for people in times of change when the community is being redefined, and always becoming larger and more complex, there is a similar issue triggering acceptance or rejection. At such times there have always been people who balked and rejected the change as not only wrong for them but wrong for everyone. Their gut tells them it’s crazy and wrong. These are conservatives, basically. The tides of human change are strong enough that conservatives are mostly pulled into these new arrangements against their better judgment. Then within one generation, the new situation will be the one they are defending from change and radical new relationships that redefine that SELF.
Communities of people actually ARE some sort of organism, certainly in the sense that bees are. I believe a couple or a family or a town and so on, pop into existence at some level as an autonomous meta-being brought into existence literally by the interaction of the parts. And that when we are busy performing these parts, we have great difficulty perceiving this truth.
And I have a belief system weirder than that. I will admit a little shamefully that I call it reality weather.
Even I am agnostic about this but it’s something I perceive. It is the shifting and scaling up and scaling down of issues and moods and events in the human world. It was visible in the new nations rush to world war one. It’s visible in the wildfire of fascism (and other isms) in the 1920s and 30s. It’s there somehow visible around the sixties and seventies. I think it’s there in mild times as well, but we don’t notice a quiet sunny day. Yep, it sounds dangerously close to astrology but it’s not. I have no dogma around it and I assert no understandable cause. But there’s something there. And we’re in some heavy damn reality weather right now in case you hadn’t noticed.
So why is Trump the perfect president for right now? Because he is absurdly unaware of anyone other than himself. Because he would never have any relationship where he blended and shared with another person. His wives are things. Other people are things. He can’t even hold the concept of what our government and nation mean as a collective and why he shouldn’t just rewrite everything to please himself. He’s that selfish.
Literally the only thing he wants to build is a structural impediment to cooperating and synthesizing at higher levels. A wall. He is the reverse Santa Claus of trust in each other and in our institutions. His mission is to Grinch-ishly take down as much of our system AND faith in that system as possible before the clock runs out.
Every country chooses leaders in a semi-conscious way that mixes the issues of the day with a tribal totem. Trump was chosen to represent the part of America that doesn’t want to blend, or share or care or change. The Trumpenproletariat. As such, he is an embodiment of not letting ourselves synchronize with others at higher levels of complexity. He symbolizes pure self-assertion and rejection of relationship and cooperation. Any place beyond the borders of our nation has become a rejected OTHERNESS. Just as it also has in England, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere. And all just about simultaneously. As a country enters this kind of period of self-assertion and push-back it reaches into a bag of domineering regressive nationalistic bastards and places the biggest one on its head like a horrible tiara. It doesn’t last forever and it can unfold in surprising ways. The United Nations and the European Union owe their existence to the 360-degree horror of WWII. That’s probably not a comforting thought right now but don’t assume the worst. To some degree, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as long as we back it up with action. Stay cool and take a reality umbrella, it’s really coming down out there.