Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

11. Emergence

Although mentioned many times before the property of systems called emergence is what really makes the subject of selforganizing systems so interesting and important in our understanding of the world. The process is so common as to be hum drum and yet it is mysterious; as when a change of temperature makes a quantity of water suddenly as solid as a rock. If it wasn't such a common experience the transformation would appear to be miraculous; a collection of flowing water molecules self-organizes into a matrix of ice crystals with order and the emergence of new and basically unpredictable properties


Emergence 1 – the process whereby new and unexpected structures and processes come into existence from the synergistic combination of simpler structures and processes previously existing.

Emergence 2 – the philosophic doctrine opposed to reducibility which declares that in a hierarchical system each level may have properties and modes of behavior peculiar to itself and not fully explicable by analytic reduction. (P. B. Medawar in The Life Science)

Emergence 3 (broad form) – The idea that there is a tendency in nature for matter and energy to spontaneously form new and more complex combinations which can, in turn, unite into other combinations of increasing complexity. These combinations bring new and unexpected properties into the world. The properties so produced cannot be reduced to or explained by the less complex parts of the combination.


Often the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. Why are there are so many different things in the world? Where do new things come from? Surrounded, as we are, with the processes of emergence, little attention has been paid to them. New and unexpected structures and processes come into existence in all branches of science, but no systematic study has been made of the general properties of emergence itself.


The development of the universe following the primeval explosion of the Big Bang is the primary example of emergence. At each stage new forces, structures, and processes appear. Elementary particles, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, radiation, gravity, nuclear and electrostatic forces, and time itself came into being. With the emergence of these new things the universe became more complex.

Although reductionism can assist the understanding of many of the phenomena that constitute the universe, it is only by considering collective phenomena and their interactions that the rich and variegated world we live in begins to emerge.

“The whole is different than the sum of its parts,” captures the idea of emergence. Implicit in this conception is that an increase in complexity of organization results in different levels of being. The levels are distinguished by their different properties or modes of behavior. Although a particular level may be made up of components from other levels the new organization is significantly different. It has new properties and processes that are different from those of its components.

A familiar example

Consider the atoms that make up a living cell. The properties of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are all different from each other. However, they are similar in respect to their organizational pattern. We can call this the atomic level.

In various combinations atoms make up the molecules of the cell, and the properties of these molecules are different from the sum of their atomic properties. For example, some of the properties of molecules are due to their folded structure, something unknown on the atomic level. A protein molecule has this folded structure.

When an organization of molecules forms a cell a remarkable new constellation of properties appear. A cell can assimilate, grow, reproduce, react to its environment and behave in ways unknown to molecules and atoms. In short, a new level; a living system has emerged.

Going further, at new organizational levels, specialized cells working together in tissues and organs produce new things. In one configuration of cells new chemical products like hormones are produced. In certain organs reproductive cells are produced. In another configuration of specialized cells the emergent product is thought. Together specialized cells produce a human being.

Yet other levels of emergence are displayed when a human being forms a family, and multiples of them form a colony, a society which has its own constellation of laws and properties.

A universe of surprise

Emergence emphasizes the creation of novelty. It gives us a universe of surprise. If, in nature, a brain with the property of consciousness can evolve, what else that is presently unimaginable to us may evolve?

A set of interesting and unanswered questions arises from a consideration of the emergent nature of things. It is the subject of threshold. At what concentration of neurons does the property called consciousness appear? How many individuals make a colony? How much complexity of connection is necessary before new properties arise? Is it possible that there is a generalization about the threshold of organization that can apply to many different kinds of organization?

The laws of nature

The glory of the scientific endeavor is the discovery of Laws of Nature. The fact that the universe is law-governed has enabled human beings to begin to understand a small portion of their world. Scientific laws are security anchors in a sea of uncertainty. The Laws of Nature, from the point of view of emerging systems, can be called fundamental organizing principles. For example, the law of gravity is the organizing principle that constructs star systems and galaxies out of gas and dust. The law of electromagnet attraction is the organizing principle by which molecules emerge into existence.

The second law of thermodynamics is well established as a fundamental principle of nature. It tells us that matter and energy tend toward a less organized, more uniform state. Will we, in the future, recognize a general law of emergence as one of the fundamental organizing principles of the world in which the tendency toward complexity is described? We know relatively little about how complex behavior throughout a system emerges from local interactions. We may also find it universally true that in the hierarchy of nature each emergent level brings into being its own unique laws. It may be expedient to redefine progress in the natural world as the emergence of new complexities.