I’ve been seeing the word emergence more and more in the last few years. But apart from the obvious sense that something arises, the meaning of the term—and what the excitement is all about—haven’t been clear to me.
So a helpful source that I will summarize here has been “The Sacred Emergence of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon (2008). As the title suggests, the authors not only describe emergence but also discuss its place in the perspective of religious naturalists.
The adage that “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” conveys a rough idea of the principle of emergence. Emergence occurs when a combination of entities has characteristics that are unlike the characteristics of its components. The common example is water: it combines hydrogen and oxygen but is like neither of those gases.
Goodenough and Deacon emphasize that emergence is the counterpart of reductionism, the process of breaking entities down into their parts. Though it tells us much about what a substance is made of, reductionism tells us little about how the parts came together in the first place and how properties emerged. In short, as the authors put it, reductionism is running the movie backwards. Emergence, in contrast, runs the movie forwards to show atoms forming compounds which then form structures, and even how life may have begun and developed.
Two gasses merge to form a very different molecule of water. When, in turn, two or more water molecules come together, they again display characteristics as a solid, liquid, or gas that the single water molecule doesn’t possess.
In the same way, a sequence of atoms, molecules and complex compounds, merging and emerging one from the other, may have created life. The pivotal moment, according to Goodenough and Deacon, occurred when the sequence happened to create over again one of the first chemicals in its chain. At that point a cycle was created, the basis of the self-sustaining quality that is characteristic of life. Energy (food) would be needed, along with an internal recipe for the proper sequence (DNA), and a living thing could emerge.
Goodenough and Deacon emphasize, interestingly, that it is not this coded recipe, the genome, that is driving the system. “Selfish genes” are not in control. “Genomes are in fact the handmaidens of emergent properties, not the other way around…. The whole point of life is to generate emergent properties that, if successfully executed, have the additional feature of permitting transmission of genomes.” It is the organism and its emergent properties that must survive and reproduce if the genome itself is to make it through to the next generation.
As organic entities increase in number and complexity, examples of emergence abound. Molecules merge to form proteins, proteins merge to carry out organic functions, functional parts converge to form organs, neural cells form brains, brains merge to create mass behavior, language, ideas, cities, blogs.
Finally, Goodenough and Deacon describe the place of emergence in the view of nature as sacred. Selected sentences from this rich discussion will have to suffice here. The theme is that emergent properties, by virtue of their originality, lie at the heart of what is wondrous throughout nature.
On our place in nature: Evolutionary theory asks us to situate the human in the natural world, and this can generate cognitive dissonance given that our mental capacities would seem to place us ‘above’ the natural world and our cultures ‘above’ the natural order. The emergentist perspective allows us to see ourselves not as ‘above’ but rather as remarkably ‘something else.’
On the magical: The emergentist perspective opens countless opportunities to encounter and celebrate the magical while remaining mindful of the fully natural basis of each encounter. There is a way in which the universe is re-enchanted each time one takes in its continuous coming into being, and there is a way in which our lives are re-enchanted each time we realize that we too are continually transcending ourselves.
On morality: One’s moral framework is not some instinct that just bubbles up. It is something that each of us constructs, amplifying and reconfiguring primate social emotions in the context of cultural stimuli and teachings.
Emergence and natural selection are the interdependent partners in evolution. The first step: an unexpected emergent property in our genes manifests itself as a change in how the body crawls, feeds, protects its young, and the change can be passed down. The second step: natural selection puts the emergent property to the test; if it’s an improvement, it can stay on as a new trait. “Continuous coming into being,” in the authors’ phrase.