Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

12. Emergence – Origins of the Concept


There is an ancient world view that “there is no new thing under the Sun; that which has been is that which shall be.” The cyclical view of life is a natural extension of the observations of seasonal change, of death and rebirth, and of decay and regeneration. It was the dominant view in a world in which change was hard to recognize in an individual lifetime. In such a world there is no discernible “progress.” It is not the world we live in today. This change in perspective separates ancient and feudal times from what we call the modern world.

A philosopher of the ancient world who did see that novelty was part of existence was the historian Heraclitus (533-475 B.C.). His maxim was, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” Plato, who quoted him in order to refute his ideas, says that Heraclitus taught that “nothing ever is, everything is becoming.”


Despite the increasingly rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, there was no intellectual development of the concept of emergence. The idea that change can bring new things into the world was not the common point of view until the way was prepared by the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. If evolution could, in time, bring new species into being it was then imaginable that the developing processes of the world had produced new and unexpected arrangements of all kinds.

The first use of the word “emergent” to refer to phenomena that were new and not explicable by the properties of their components was by George Henry Lewes (1817-1878). In his book Problems of Life and Mind (1879) Lewes contrasts the word “emergent” with the word “resultant” and introduces the idea that it is through emergence that novelties enter the world.

An early attempt to establish a philosophic interpretation of nature as a whole with emergence as one of its principles is the work of philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938). Early on he accepted and incorporated the idea of Minkowski and Einstein that space and time were not independent entities and that the only reality was space/time. His Gifford Lectures of 1916-1918 were published in two volumes as Space, Time, and Deity (1920).

In that book he stated “In the course of time as new complexities of motion come into existence, a new quality emerges, that is, a new complex [entity] possesses, as a matter of observed empirical fact, a new or emergent quality... Physical and chemical processes of a certain complexity have the quality of life... The higher quality emerges from the lower level of existence and has its roots therein, but it emerges therefrom, and it constitutes a new order of existence with its special laws of behaviour.” “Mind is, according to our interpretation of the facts, an ‘emergent’ from life.”

In Alexander’s view, there were two fundamental concepts in the understanding of the universe. They were space-time and the tendency of matter to move toward increasing complexity with new qualities [properties] emerging. This idea is at the heart of the concept of emergence.

A contemporary of Samuel Alexander was C. Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936), whose book Emergent Evolution (1928) was also the result of Gifford Lectures given at the University of St. Andrews in Glasgow. Morgan’s lectures were delivered in 1922.

Morgan expanded on the idea of emergence. He asked, What is it that is emerging? His answer was, “Some new kind of relation.” At each ascending step of increasing complexity of matter new ways of acting on, and reacting to other entities appear. In what sense are these actions new? They are new because “their specific nature could not be predicted before they appear in the evidence.” For an illustration he uses the phase change of water to ice. In Morgan’s view the lower density of ice compared to that of water represents a new relationship among the water molecules. As ice they are in a crystalline relationship vastly different from their relationship to each other as liquid. The phase change brings new emergent properties along with it.

Emergence and vitalism

It should be made clear that those who began to espouse the idea of emergence were at pains to distance themselves from any form of vitalism. (That is the doctrine that living organisms must possess some kind of life-force, beyond physics and chemistry, that makes it possible for them to live.) Those favoring emergence also denied Henry Bergson’s idea that a new force, the elan vital, was at work in the evolution of new forms. For them it was simply a matter of fact that, as Lloyd Morgan puts it, “One starts with electrons and the like; one sees in the atom a higher complex; one sees in the molecule a yet higher complex... In nature the progression continues to an organism which simply has a different kind of complexity.”

The modern view seems to take the notion of emergence somewhat for granted. The idea that more complex organizations have special properties not possessed by their component parts seems completely reasonable. To a large extent the subject has been tied to the development of the systems view of the world and to the concepts of biological organization.

Why are there so many different things in the world?

An answer to this strange question may be in the principles of emergence. It is one of the characteristics of self-organizing systems that they produce new structures and processes. That is, they create emergents. These in turn, create other emergents, multiplying the structures and processes of the world; a feedback process that increases the number of things in the world.