Posted by: zyxo | December 30, 2007

The End of Emergence

Emergent patterns are the relatively complex patterns that we observe on a higher level and which are the result of relatively simple behaviour of agents of some sort on a lower level. Examples are bee swarms, ant hills, termite hills, animal brains, stock prices, multicellular organisms, human organisations etc..

For patterns to emerge, there are two conditions :

  • first : you need to have a lot of individual agents at the lower level which belong somehow to an identifiable group
  • second : you need a a whole lot of these indentifiable groups (the higher level)  in order to permit some sort of natural selection of the fittest groups.

Example : a termite hill is built by thousends of thermites. If their behavioral patterns are suboptimal, something will go wrong with the termite hill (e.g. bad air conditioning) and they all will die. The other termite hills who do better will survive and pass on their genes to the next generations.


It is simple : when one of the two conditions are no longer met.

Let us look at ourselves : humanity. We are the result of a long series of emergent patterns, beginning by organic molecules organizing into cells, by cells organizing into first simple multicellular organisms and later on into more complex organisms. We became intelligent and organised ourselves into communities (tribes) with various social and hierachical structures. The most successful of these communities have spread and taken over the whole planet.

So where do we stand as to new emerging patterns ? There are still a lot of these communities so the first condition for emerging patterns is fulfilled. But what about the second one ? Howmany groups of huge numbers of communities are there ? It seems as there is only one group left at the highest level. The communities and individuals of this group are connected through the internet and other telecommunication media. So there is no room for competition at the highest level and we humans have reached the end of emergence.

Do we ?

Eventually we will swarm out to the stars and each occupied planet will represent a different community, isolated enough from the other ones.  This could open up a new higher level of patterns.


  1. You don’t need a lot of agents for patterns to emerge. To build a heap in an environment consisting of randomly-scattered wood chips, a small number of termites only has to follow one simple rule : While wandering randomly

    * if you find a chip then pick it up
    * unless you’re already carrying a chip in which case drop it

    These simple rules lead to “heap formation” even for a small number of agents (or termites)

  2. Nor is emergence about competition.

    And I’m surprised you focus only on the macro-societal level before pronouncing “the end of emergence”. The brain functions through emergent qualities; the body is a collection of energent qualities; families and small groups create emergent characteristics….

    Not sure what you were meaning perhaps?

  3. @Dr.Shue
    Brain and body and groups are results of natural selection. They are the result of millions of random variations of which the best sere selected during millions of years.
    You really need a whole lot of cases where you can select the best. Otherwise you end up with a bunch of no goods.

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