i n t e g r a l c o u n s e l i n g i n s t i t u t e
February 2007 Book Review and Quotes Archive
Emergence - the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software
by Steven Johnson
Scribner 2001, ISBN 0-684-86875-X
A few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Steven Johnson about Emergence on National Public Radio. It had the
kind of surprising, engaging, provocative ideas that make you want to press the “pause” button, pull over, and either think
for a while or call someone to run a thought down. That evening, as I bought my daughter an after-school bagel and cream
cheese at the True Brew, her favorite bistro, bookstore, and home work hang-out, Emergence literally emerged into my
awareness from the shelf by the water pitcher. How could I not take it home for a read?
The gist of it is that much of history and inquiry has been predicated on the notion that “pacemakers” or great men or
inventors or technology set up events that alter everything that follows. These are “top-down” forces: the ideas that foment
revolution, or evolutionarily speaking, adaptations like wings or sight. He shares the idea that we may be neurologically
hard wired to see a “cause” or reason and contrasts this with a “bottom up” model of change. “Bottom up” is harder to see
or point out because of its prevalent though broad contextual diffusion.
“Bottom-up” represents a kind of self-organizing principle that does not reside in a single organism, neuron, or city resident
yet remains durable over time and diffuse within its setting. He has some evocative examples of this in ant colony observations
dealing with their dead and the city of Manchester growing and evolving yet maintaining forever in its stew specific areas of
function like silk trade brokers or gay lifestyle zones. The notion across all these categories is that simple “stupid” rules on
the local scale permit complex “emergent” phenomena on the next scale up.
Johnson does not mention the work of Stephen Wolfram, the creative genius – a genuine “pacemaker” who has definitively
explored the mathematics of cellular automata. Wolfram makes the case that the entire algorithmic program for the universe
could well be fit on a single sheet of paper – from which the cascade of endlessly emergent phenomena would manifest. He
also does not mention the work of Rupert Sheldrake whose notion of the morphogenetic field, though a little to the wu side
of speculation, seeks to account for similar phenomena. They are all seeking to illuminate that strange coordination appearing
in the evolutionary and historic record of sudden shifts from tipping points to chaos or higher levels of organization – cosmic,
biological, and social complexity.
The strength of this book and delight in its reading are the careful observations that illuminate parallels in such seemingly
disparate communities – ants, neurons, cities, and software. I won’t look at the little line of ants marching across my kitchen
counter with the same eyes again. And though I’m not usually paranoid, I’ll keep an eye out for any suddenly sentient internet
nodes watching me back. You might do the same.
~ Review by Tom Tower
February Quotes of the Month
The development cycles of [ant] colonies may be intriguing enough at face value, but consider this additional fact: while the
overall colony evolves and adapts over fifteen years, the ants that make up the colony live no longer than twelve months.
Indeed, the hapless male ants – who only show up once a year for the mating flight – only live for a single day. (Their life
span is so abbreviated that natural selection didn’t bother to endow them with the jaws to eat, since they don’t live long
enough to get hungry.) - Steven Johnson, Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software
Today’s talk of a giant global brain is cheap. But there’s a difference. These days, most people who talk this way are
speaking loosely. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, has noted parallels between the Web and the
structure of the brain, but he insists that “global brain” is mere metaphor. Teilhard de Chardin, in contrast, seems to have
been speaking literally: humankind was coming to constitute an actual brain – like the one in your head, except bigger.
Certainly there are more people today than in Teilhard’s day who take the idea of a global brain literally. Are they crazy?
Was Teilhard crazy? Not as crazy as you might think. - Steven Johnson, Emergence: the connected lives of ants,
brains, cities, and software
The human body is made up of several hundred different types of cells - muscle, blood, nervous, and so on. At any given
time approximately 75 trillion of these cells are working away in your body. In a very real sense, you are the sum of their
actions; there is no you without them. And yet those cells are dying all the time. Thousands probably died in the time it took
you to read the last sentence, and by next week, you will composed of billions of new cells that weren’t there to enjoy the
reading of that sentence, much less enjoy your first step or your high school prom. Cells are dying all the time in you body
– and most of them are being replaced a tremendous clip. (Even brain cells turn out to regenerate themselves far into
adulthood.) And yet somehow, despite that enormous cellular turnover, you still feel like yourself week to week and year to
year. How is this possible? - Steven Johnson, Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software
Almost two centuries after Engels wrestled with the haunting of Manchester’s city streets, and fifty years after Turing puzzled
over the mysteries of a flower’s bloom, the circle is finally complete. Our minds may be wired to look for pacemakers, but we
are steadily learning how to think from the bottom up. - Steven Johnson, Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains,
cities, and software