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Emergence by Steven Johnson

technology/animal behavior, Touchstone Books  (Paperback), 2001, 288 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Have you been feeling frustrated by your relative impotence in our hierarchical society?  The President bombs the wrong country in response to 9/11 or your boss lays you off at 62 to save the company pension costs -- these are examples of top-down command and control.  Don't despair.  There is hope in the strangest of places.

EMERGENCE examines the worlds that exhibit self-organizing behavior, from the swarm intelligence of ant colonies (where the individual ant is not the organism, but the colony as super-organism is) to the systems engineering of increasingly complex and powerful software.  Self-organizing systems are affronts to the carefully-nurtured myths of the necessity of hierarchical
control, and they offer visions of how advanced homo sapiens might re-organize the exploding populace to take better advantage of its conscious, and unconscious, talents and sensitivities.

We all think we know how an ant colony works.  The supreme queen breeds and breeds, and her fecundity is the motive force for all the worker ants to keep her fed and safely hidden.  But entomologists have found other factors at work.  They asked the question: How are the specialized work demands of the colony communicated to all the dispersed worker ants?  The old answer was that it was their DNA that hard-wired them to build tunnels, seek food, and separate their garbage and their dead fro their stockpiles of foodstuffs.  Not so.  It turns out that proximity to other workers sets their task lists as well. The foragers influence those near them to forage, as do the builders, the garbage collectors, and the undertakers.  The queen, putative head of the colony, is actually a passive receptacle, a breeding machine, not an ant monarch or prime mover.  This is an example of
self-organizing complexity in nature.

Analogous to this, says Johnson, is the growth or urban metropolises.  Manchester, England transformed itself from a sleepy agrarian town to the world's first bustling industrial city before hierarchical control had been imposed, before it had even been incorporated as a legal city.  The starting point for this change was the industrial revolution, and it was the responses of individual workers and their families, acting not in concert, but from the same stimulus, that forged the notions of specialized
neighborhoods and segregation by class that now define the urban city.

Perhaps more obviously, the acceleration of computational power has led to "smart" programs, ones that learn from experience.  An example of this is Sim City and its successors, games in which a seemingly pre-set program responds differently to the sophistication levels of each of its players.  Another example is's customer ratings system, which will tell you "If you liked EMERGENCE, you might like FLESH AND MACHINES as well."  At first, this was based on purchasing patterns, but it has evolved to now allow users to "rate' the other user-reviewers.

The human brain, too, can be viewed as a self-organizing entity.  It is a complex adaptive system capable of displaying emergent behavior.  It is the genotype (the DNA) for the phenotype (the human race).  It has invented consciousness, a property not possessed, so far as we can determine, by ants or antelopes.  And that has led to emergent meta-consciousness (first language, then the codification of language through writing and the invention of the book, then the encyclopedia, then the telephone, the typewriter, the computer and the Internet.)   The emergence of these disruptive technologies has challenged our ancient traditions and cherished shibboleths.  Local information can now act as the basis for global wisdom.

How does all this help us correctly categorize Bush as a dinosaur (munching on Carboniferous stored wealth) and propose a better symbolic leader, or change the inhumane policy of the corporation to which we devoted the best years of our lives?

Self-organizing entities, emergent from the bottom up, despite active hostility from the powers-that-were, created a climate that ended the Vietnam War and that dealt a severe blow to racial segregation.  The democratization of mass communications allowed multiple opinions and points of view to emerge and flower.  Could the democratic movement in China have
occurred without the fax machine?  Could the opponents of globalization have organized sustained leaderless protests without the creation of non-geography dependent virtual communities of interest via the Internet?

Of course, not all bottoms up self-organizing is good.  The same tools available to well-meaning individuals are also available to terrorists or nihilists, as we learned so dramatically just a year ago.  Yet a principle of emergent self-organization offers some hope here too.  It is not inconceivable that virtual communities of peace-seeking Arabs and peace-seeking Americans, peace-seeking Palestinians and peace-seeking Jews, will spontaneously arise, resist the old-fashioned thinking of top-down
leaders, and fashion their own visions for society.  If these visions confer survival value to our species, evolution will favor them, just as it did the mammals (with a little asteroidal help) over the dinosaurs.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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