Emergence: Complexity is Simple

Written by: Fuad Kehinde (Science Editor)

A lone ant would not survive in nature, a molecule of water isn’t a liquid and a single person can’t build a power plant. Emergence is when a lot of simple things come together to form something complicated. When adding many individual items together creates something that’s more than the sum of its parts. And often, what’s created can end up being independent of its individual parts.

Emergent properties are evident everywhere in our universe.  For example, in chemistry, we don’t consider a single molecule of water to be liquid. It doesn’t flow, it doesn’t get anything wet, it doesn’t have any of the properties that we see in all liquids. Therefore, a water molecule can’t be a liquid. However, what we perceive as a liquid is more the behaviour of a large collection of water molecules interacting with each other and in response to outside stimuli. The idea of an object being wet doesn’t make sense if a single molecule of water is on it. Being wet is what we observe when a lot of water molecules are on the object. So, to answer the age-old debate, it’s fair to conclude that water is NOT wet (on the molecular level at least).

Another example, the most fundamental particle of life, the cell. We consider cells to be alive, but they are themselves made up of materials that we consider “dead” i.e. proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids. The property of “alive” is not seen in any of the cell’s individual parts and yet it still emerges. Each part of a cell is simple in that they have limited functionality. There aren’t many rules that they need to follow and they’re easy to understand. But as a result of the interaction between these parts, you get the cell and thus the property that is life.

Even cells are simple things that come together to form something more complex. Countless cells together form complex organisms like squirrels and people. But to go a step further, our brain is made entirely of cells and these cells work together in some way that we don’t yet understand to give us consciousness as an emergent property. We’re able to question ourselves, question why we are alive and even have existential crises all because of individual cells working together. The jump in capabilities there is truly hard to understand. 

As seen in cells, emergent properties can be incredibly powerful and can be capable of tasks far greater than you could predict from the individual part. This can be seen in computing. All modern computing is based on mechanisms called logic gates that only have two simple outputs, 1 and 0. Yes and No. Two outputs that give barely any information. And yet, they allow me to type this article on my laptop, they allow you to read this article on your phone and allow people to play games for the entirety of these lockdown restrictions. It is simply incredible how we can get so much use out of just 1’s and 0’s.

What I find to be the most fascinating aspect of emergence is the lack of importance of individuals. You can replace all the individual molecules in a water bottle with similar molecules or sometimes even completely different molecules and you can still get that property of “liquid”. When that property can exist, it can exist independently of all its individuals.

Consider what you see as your body. A system of organs, muscles, bones and your brain all working together to keep you alive. But every part of this system is made of cells, and most of your cells need to die and be replaced fairly frequently. In fact, during a 7-year period, most of the cells in your body must die and be replaced at least once. So, what you consider your body right now is merely a snapshot that will be completely erased and replaced in 7 years. All of the individual parts that make up the body can be replaced and yet it’s still our body. It doesn’t cease to be the same body as it was 7 years prior or it will be in 7 years. 

Where this separation between an emergent property and its individuals is most evident is in society. What exactly is a country? Is its population? The building and institutions that it creates? It’s flag or anthem? Maybe even the land it occupies? All these things are at most temporary, if not fleeting. New generations are born, older generations die, new history is created, land borders constantly change, buildings are torn down and rebuilt. That means the UK is more than the 67,861,743 people (June 6) that make it up. But that’s not to say that the individuals don’t matter, that we as UofG students don’t matter. The UK exists despite drastic changes in its parts, but it cannot exist without any of its parts. Without me or you in it, the UK as it is now, as what it means to all our friends and family, does not exist. The world goes on without us but is not the same without every single one of us.

Even knowledge itself is an emergent property within humanity. Like I said earlier, one person can’t build a nuclear reactor. It takes the experiences and insights of countless others and generations before us to make one building. One individual can’t acquire and possess all the knowledge needed alone. Different individuals with different abilities can create something that can do more than all of us. 

When I think about emergence, I see it as a new way to look at the world. The world is a bunch of simple things, practically powerless individuals, that work together to create things I perceive as beautiful and complex. The universe that seems so lonely is actually connected in ways that are difficult to understand. And considering all of this, the thought that I’m left with is that me, you and the entire universe are more than the sum of our parts.

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