Talk:Emergence (biology)

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 Definition The exhibition of novel collective phenomena in living systems stemming from a complex organization of their many constituent parts. [d] [e]


Hi Anthony:

While it is beyond debate that systems can be described in language that has no meaning when applied to their constituent subsystems, things like temperature and possibly consciousness, the idea of emergence seems to be just another name for these system properties with the addition of some "magical" elements about the amazing appearance of new properties. To my mind the microscopic behavior of atoms in a gas is more fundamental than some average that we call "temperature", or some property that we call "heat". It is obvious that thermodynamics gets along with such concepts just fine (within its domain of applicability, which excludes things like fluctuations about the mean), and it doesn't have to refer to its underpinnings in statistical mechanics. However, the use of thermodynamics to explain a situation instead of a complete microscopic analysis based upon atomic motions or maybe the Standard model is simply an economy of thought, made necessary by the limited capacity of the human mind and its computer agents, and not the emergence of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I'd argue that the notion of " inexplicably unpredicted novel properties, functions and behaviors, ones not observed in the system's subsystems and their components, and not explainable or predictable from complete understanding the components' properties/functions/behaviors considered in isolation from the system that embeds them." is a set with zero members. John R. Brews 14:00, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

It's an argument that is in danger of descending into pedantry, around what we mean by "complete understanding". For computational biologists, emergent behaviour is complex "high level" behaviour that was not explicitly designed into the system, and which arises only above a critical level of complexity. There are lots of proposed examples - and the examples are didactically important as narratives of how apparent 'design' in a complex system can arise/evolve/emerge 'spontaneously' once a system gets complex enough. In addition, for biologists generally there is a common problem with inferring causality. In health sciences we are used to thinking of risk factors rather than causes of disease in acknowledgement of the fact that predicting who will get a disease, when they will get it and its likely course may be possible for populations but not for individuals. Complex organismal phenotypes, including those that confer susceptibility or resistance to disease, often look (for the moment) like emergent properties of hugely complex gene networks. Whether these can ever be subsumed into a conventional causal narrative is unclear - the "causes" may be causes only in the sense of the butterfly's wings causing a tornado.Gareth Leng 08:34, 29 August 2012 (UTC)
Gareth: Your remarks seem to me to straddle both sides of this argument, suggesting on the one hand that "high level" behavior can be shown to arise spontaneously from models involving only subsystem interactions and no additional interactions introduced by "global" connections, and on the other hand that (perhaps out of inability) we are forced to make predictions based upon global considerations that have no cause traceable to subsystem interactions. So is it your view that the issue is undecidable, suggesting a perhaps a different phrasing of the issues? John R. Brews 14:51, 29 August 2012 (UTC)

Here is a discussion of "emergent" gravity as a macroscopic version of a more microscopic theory. Here is a more general presentation of the relation between macro-theories and micro-theories.

in contrast we have this from ( a reputable source?):

"Macroevolution, in all its possible meanings, implies the emergence of new complex functions. A function is not the simplistic sum of a great number of "elementary" sub-functions: sub-functions have to be interfaced and coherently integrated to give a smoothly performing whole. In the same way, macroevolution is not the mere sum of elementary microevolutionary events."

I am afraid that this kind of "thinking" flourishes in the mystical environment of emergence. John R. Brews 14:32, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

And we have this:

"In the absence of a dialectical understanding of human history, the question whether individuals create social reality or vice versa continues to shape sociological theory construction. Is society a sui generis, transcendent reality which coercively shapes human behavior or is it, instead, simply equal to the sum of individual actions? Can social facts be explained only by other social facts or does explanation require, to be valid, that social facts be reduced to micro-level explanations?"

which has the merit of posing a question, not making an assertion. John R. Brews 15:06, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

Why emergence?

I am concerned that the section Why emergence?, and perhaps this entire article, is phrased too much in the manner of presenting an established predominating view, when it should be presented as simply one point of view, and contrasting views should be presented as well. Although a vast number of proponents can be cited, in my opinion this topic suffers from the exploitation by some of ambiguity and vague terminology to advance mysticism. John R. Brews 14:49, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

This section is far too assertive about what is mere conjecture. The statement:

"One reason: the intrinsic properties of a system’s components cannot themselves determine those of the whole system; rather, their 'organizational dynamics' does — how the components interact coordinately in time and space. Those organizational dynamics include not only the interrelations among the components themselves, but also interactions among the many different organizational units in the system."

is a bald assertion without foundation. To phrase what is said above a bit differently, the assertion is that the properties of the parts deciding their reaction to inputs are an incomplete description, and that when the parts are juxtaposed they both generate and respond to novel forms of interaction. Maybe there is an example of such a system of entities, but I don't think so. The source describing "organicism (materialistic holism)" is hokum, I'm afraid. John R. Brews 16:56, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

The query:

"Why do not all of the properties/behaviors of a living system predictably result from the properties of its components?"

is not just a question, but a presupposition of facts not in evidence, definitely disprovable in some cases, and perhaps in general. John R. Brews 15:17, 29 August 2012 (UTC)

Role of closed systems

The example provided of studying a protein separated from the cellular system that embeds it in a cell, and the proposed inadequacy of this study to "explaining any of the properties it has in the context of the system that embeds it" may point simply to the failure to properly identify the "system". This idea of how to identify a closed system may be a better entry point into "emergence" than the identification of magical properties.

If two systems are coupled, each may impact the other, and the analysis of the pair must involve this coupling. We have a feedback arrangement, and although each system may be completely described in terms of its response to arbitrary inputs, when these inputs are generated by another system that responds to the first, the solution to this coupled-system behavior may be much easier to describe in new terminology.

An example might be the vibrations of a crystal lattice, usually described in terms of phonons, entities describing vibrations of the crystal as a whole. It remains the case however, that a description in terms of individual atomic properties can be recovered from the phonon picture, and the two descriptions are simply different perspectives on the same phenomena, of which one or the other may be more practical in a given situation, somewhat analogous to an architect's sketch being more useful in presenting a proposal to a layman than a mechanical drawing of its floor plan. John R. Brews 15:27, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

Some changes

I've made a few changes to separate the concept of emergence from the characterization as "unpredictable", to leave that as a possible but not required property of emergence. John R. Brews 16:40, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

Water as an example

The question posed in the section Water as an example are biased toward the "surprising" nature of water when viewed simply as hydrogen and oxygen. However, I suspect that most properties of water, including its dielectric behavior (transparency) and its hydrodynamics (e.g. vortex formation) all are entirely predictable using modern physics and chemistry. These questions should be rephrased to allow that an entirely reductionist explanation is not only possible but already extant. John R. Brews 17:05, 27 August 2012 (UTC)

Recommend change of title

Why have we an article called Emergence (biology)? I suspect that an article Emergence would be better and could include any biological applications as a subsection. That would remove the possible proliferation of many "emergence" articles, like Emergence (traffic control), Emergence (phase transformations) and so forth. I suggest a renaming of this article. John R. Brews 15:54, 29 August 2012 (UTC)

Renaming this article could lead to a salutary rewrite that is much needed. John R. Brews 16:53, 29 August 2012 (UTC)

Section: Examples of emergence

The section Examples of emergence repeatedly makes the criterion identifying emergent properties the condition that they cannot be explained based upon subsystem behavior alone. I believe this approach to emergence is too restricted.

For one thing, what we can explain today and what we might explain tomorrow does not particularly distinguish emergence from other areas of experience. For a second thing, it is not necessarily complexity that leads to unpredictability.

The proper (IMO) identification of an emergent property is as a phenomenon described using global terminology, independent of whether the phenomenon also is explicable by a theory based upon subsystem properties alone that do not invoke the global terminology. An emergent property is described as a cooperative activity in cooperative terms, and it is neither here nor there whether it has only a collective description or may have multiple descriptions using different vocabularies. John R. Brews 14:51, 31 August 2012 (UTC)

What is controversial about emergence?

Although the article says emergence is controversial, the controversy is not pointed out explicitly. It may be that this paragraph pinpoints the controversy:

"Emergent properties are viewed by some as novel properties, functions and behaviors, ones not observed in the system's subsystems and their components, and neither explicable nor predictable from even a complete understanding of the components' properties/functions/behaviors considered in isolation. Others take the view that these novel properties are the outcome of interactions between the constituents understandable from microscopic behavior, but more readily envisioned by introduction of novel organizational concepts."

Probably most would recognize emergent behavior when they saw it, although there might be some undecidable cases. The controversy is over whether this behavior is explicable or predictable from the understanding of the component parts. I'd guess two camps are formed: the mystics who say no not even in principle (a basically unprovable position) and the pragmatists who say we don't have the explanation just yet, or it has some failings, but explanation will come with time (also an unprovable position). Inevitably, as sometimes an explanation will be found, the phenomena considered "emergent" by the first camp will continue to be nibbled away at as explanations are discovered, while the second camp will not be so affected.

If this argument over predictability is actually the controversy, it is puerile and should be identified that way. If the controversy lies elsewhere, it should be spelled out. John R. Brews 05:10, 21 September 2012 (UTC)

A third position is that, in some cases, explanation is in principle possible but in practice not (computationally infeasible, or requiring impractical experiments). Also unprovable.
But what's with provability anyway? Neither science nor philosophy is about that. Peter Jackson 09:22, 22 September 2012 (UTC)

My use of the word ‘controversial’ came from these excepts from the Introduction to Bedau and Humphreys: [1]

The topic of emergence is fascinating and controversial in part because emergence seems to be widespread and yet the very idea of emergence seems opaque, and perhaps even incoherent.
The chapters in this book are full of many other examples of apparent emergent phenomena. These examples can serve as useful guides against which to test an account of emergence. However, testing accounts with these examples is not always simple. Everything else being equal, it would count in favor of a theory of emergence if it could explain how all these examples do involve emergence. But there is no guarantee that the best theory will classify all these examples as genuine cases of emergence. When we finally understand what emergence truly is, we might see that many of the examples are only apparent cases of emergence. Indeed, one of the hotly contested issues is whether there are any genuine examples of emergence.
One small caveat is needed here. Hunting for emergence is an exciting sport, but the claim that something is emergent should be made with care and supported with persuasive evidence. Indeed, some of the articles reprinted in this collection ultimately are quite skeptical about emergence and argue that emergent phenomena, if they exist at all, are likely to be uncommon.
For example, many contemporary philosophers think that emergence is a rare and special quality found only in extremely distinctive settings, such as human consciousness. Others think that emergence is quite common and ordinary, applying to a myriad of complex systems found in nature. For those who think that nothing is truly emergent, the question still arises whether this state of affairs is simply an accident or whether the very idea of emergence is incoherent.
Some maintain that emergent phenomena are real features of the world, while others maintain that emergence is merely a result of our imposing certain kinds of representation on the world, or a result of our limited abilities to comprehend correctly what the world is like.

At least Bedau and Humphreys—true believers—admit of controversial aspects of 'emergence'. Anthony.Sebastian 02:44, 24 September 2012 (UTC)

  1. Bedau MA, Humphreys P. (editors) (2008) Emergence: contemporary readings in philosophy and science. A Bradford book." ISBN 978-0-262-02621-5 (hc), ISBN 978-0-262-52475-9 (pbk)
Anthony: Thanks for this lengthy excerpt. You will notice it is all blather - there is no attempt to explain the source of controversy, but simply repeat over and over that there is controversy. My view is that emergence is well established in the sense of the article as described by the NRC: " If the rules are specified at a low level, for example, the individual termites, and the patterns and structures, like termite mounds, emerge at a scale where there are no rules specified, we may call this emergent behavior." There is no controversy about this. Also as Anderson says in the quote in the article: "The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of simple extrapolation... Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear..."
The controversy over emergence is actually a controversy over the attempt to inject magic into its appearance and to seek some toehold for mysticism and (I do say) superstition. John R. Brews 00:31, 27 September 2012 (UTC)
Hi John, you sing to the choir. I 'believe' in the reality of 'emergence', but have not yet found a definition that I think would serve as a didactic locomotive to pull a train of coherent thoughts for our intelligent, educated reader. Or a definition I'd want to adopt for my own adventure into explication. I write to learn as well as teach.
Consider whether this statement by mainstream philosopher Michael Silberstein accords with your understanding:

Within philosophy and the sciences the term ‘emergence’ is used in such a variety of bewildering and heterogeneous ways that it seems the word itself is the only thing shared ...‘’The Oxford Companion to Consciousness’’.

I certainly find that the case, even excluding those motivated by irrational / supernatural / mystical / magical thinking. The subject of emergence, though not always so named, has a long history, and, as I see it, remains in active cogitative flux among rational cogitators, as all the recent collections I've read, including Bedau and Humphreys'.
I do not leave my skeptical thinking behind me, with duct tape affixed to its speaking apparatus, when I think about emergence, especially because I really want to believe in strong, ontological emergence. I'll keep an open mind, but as James Oberg cautioned, not so open my brain falls out. Anthony.Sebastian 20:25, 27 September 2012 (UTC)

Hi Anthony: From what you quote by Silberstein, emergence may have become a garbage word. If you talk about a particular case like Marangoni-Bénard temperature cells a formal apparatus exists and you may be able to attach the idea of emergence to an order parameter and view emergence as basically a more efficient and tractable description of system behavior where cooperative action prevails. Where there is a theory that is not attached to a more microscopic description, you may still be able to talk of emergence, perhpas evolution being one such theory. So one may retain an agnostic stance as to whether a complete patchwork of overlapping theories will be assembled one day, with islands where micro and macro theories both apply, but using Occam's razor one may reasonably keep the Ouija board at bay and deny the occult. John R. Brews 01:15, 28 September 2012 (UTC)

Book by Holland

Hi Anthony:

The book Emergence: from chaos to order has some flaky elements. For example, on p. 236 Holland says it is only in the 20th century that it has been suggested that mathematics be treated in a manner divorced from application. I'd suggest Plato had that idea in the Theory of Forms. Holland also suggests it is the Bourbaki school that is responsible for this development, which is balderdash. Having made this point, he then follows with the complete non-sequitor that we should not be surprised that math is the generator par excellence for models of the world.

I think you are right to stress the variety of examples presented, rather than quality, because the theoretical portions are pretty feeble. It is basically a pep talk, a sort of Sunday sermon intended to inspire and enthuse, and above all not to stray into boring detail.

Hi John
I agree. I find Holland's book disappointing in many sections. I do think his approach confining himself to well-defined ruled-based systems to introduce emergence helpful, particularly for someone just stepping into the quagmire of emergence. This excerpt makes sense to me:

First of all, I will restrict study to systems for which we have useful descriptions in terms of rules or laws. Games, systems made up of well-understood components (molecules composed of atoms) , and systems defined by scientific theories (Newton's theory of gravity) are prime examples.

Emergent phenomena also occur in domains for which we presently have few accepted rules; ethical systems, the evolution of nations, and the spread of ideas come to mind. Most of the ideas developed here have relevance for such systems, but precise application to those systems will require better conjectures about the laws (if any) that govern their development.

There may be other valid scientific uses for the term "emergence," but this rule-governed domain is rich enough to keep us fully occupied. This book will demonstrate again and again that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity. Moreover, this complexity is not just the complexity of random patterns. Recognizable features exist, as in a pointillist painting. In addition, the systems are animated-dynamic; they change over time. Though the laws are invariant, the things they govern change. The varying patterns of the pieces in a board game, or the trajectories of baseballs, planets, and galaxies under Newton's laws, show the way. The rules or laws generate the complexity, and the ever-changing flux of patterns that follows leads to perpetual novelty and emergence. Indeed, in most cases we will not understand these complex systems until we understand the emergent phenomena that attend them.

Recognizable features and patterns are pivotal in this study of emergence. I'll not call a phenomenon emergent unless it is recognizable and recurring; when this is the case, I'll say the phenomenon is regular. That a phenomenon is regular does not mean that it is easy to recognize or explain. The task can be difficult even when the laws underpinning the dynamics are known. In chess it took centuries of study to recognize certain patterns of play, such as the control of pawn formations. Once recognized, these patterns greatly enhance the possibility of winning the game. Similarly, it took centuries of study to extract some of the dynamic patterns inherent in Newton's laws, such as the gravitational boosts used in planetary exploration. And still we learn.

Anthony.Sebastian 22:21, 7 October 2012 (UTC)