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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Emergence and Contingency/Purpose/Agency:
An Exploration of an Intersection Between
History and Biology/Neurobiology


Pilot Project 1) Perceptions of Agency/Purpose/Contigency in Computer Simulations

We begin our research with our own (individual and shared) sense of what we think terms like emergence, agency and contingency mean. The intent of this module is to expand our inquiry by comparing our sense of the meaning of these terms to those of other people.

In NetLogo, "turtle" is the name given to the agents to whom rules are attached, and who enact those rules in turn within the background environment of the program. When observers first see a NetLogo simulation, they often anthropomorphize the action of the turtles, speaking in terms of the turtlesí desire to accomplish particular goals or create particular structures. We propose to ask how human subjects make the leap from the action of emergent systems to narrative descriptions of those actions. In so doing, we will be investigating how and when human observers perceive agency/purpose/contingency and whether there is a way to describe these terms independently of such perceptual framing.

What we propose to do in this module is to first ask individual human subjects to watch a short NetLogo simulation and then after a short interval to describe to a researcher the events that they witnessed. We then propose to do the same thing but with groups of three subjects who will watch the same simulation together and will be asked to create a narrative through conversing with each other about what they watched. Finally, we plan to have single subjects play a five-minute run of a computer game which has no pre-set sequence of events but provisions "narrative components" like characters, setting and the like and to then have those subjects tell a story of what happened during their play session .

These comparative steps will explore what the minimum necessary requirements are for human observers to perceive agency/purpose/contingency within a dynamic system and the typical language or narrative forms they use to describe the action and intention of agents within such a system. We will read the narratives in comparison to our perceptions and understandings of agency/purpose/contingency and modify our own understandings appropriately. We suspect that narrative production may vary depending on the conditions of the observation, and include three different conditions to get a broad sense of what circumstances affect representations of agency/purpose/contingency in narratives.

Pilot Project 2) From the Inanimate to Humans

In this module, we propose to use human subjects to substitute for the turtles in NetLogo. Human agents will be instructed to act as surrogate turtles in three conditions within a single NetLogo simulation design. In each condition, all participants will be acting simultaneously, but with varying degrees of communication or isolation from each other. We plan to use the "Termite" simulation described above.

In the first condition, human subjects will have no information about their environment beyond seeing a single pixel distance from their assigned turtle. They will be bound by the same ruleset as the termites in NetLogo except that they will be allowed to choose the direction of their next move. In the second condition, human subjects will have global information about the entire playing field and a choice of direction in which to move on each time step. In the third condition, they will have global information, simultaneous communication with all other human players and the choice to move in any direction.†

We will compare the behavior of human agents in the three conditions with that of the Termite simulation itself. We will compare the frequency of the successful building of a pile, the number of steps to taken to complete a pile and any other aspects of relevant behavior. We will also question the human participants about their experiences of agency/purpose/contingency in each condition to add to our earlier exploration to the meaning of these terms. Through the outcome comparisons, we hope to gain an understanding of what humans do that is not done by NetLogo turtles (which lack agency/purpose/contingency). The differences between the three conditions aim to explore the extent to which the possession of global information and of communication abilities influence the expression of agency/purpose/contingency. To the extent that they seem to, we will modify the termite program to see whether we can with discrete additions of capabilities simulate human behavior in these conditions.

Pilot Project 3) From Humans to the Inanimate

Borrowing a "social dynamics" game observed once by Paul Grobstein at a meeting, we plan to invert some of the premises of Module 2 and use human behavior as the starting point for models.

The game proceeds as follows. Starting with an initial group of two, players simultaneously must hold out anywhere from zero to five fingers on one hand. If they hold out the same number of fingers, they have reached completion of one round of play. When two groups of two players have completed one round, they will be aggregated together in a group of four and will repeat the same exercise. When two groups of four players complete a round, they will be combined to make a group of eight. Players cannot communicate with each other during the game.

Many times, as the groups grow larger, implicit rules or covenants seem to emerge to govern or structure the action of gameplay and the time it takes to get to all players holding out the same number of fingers However, the specifics of these understood rules may differ significantly between separate instances of the game, as may the time to completion.

We will compare behavior of a group of 32 humans in this game with the behavior of a NetLogo simulation that is written to achieve synchronous number display. We will make the comparison in terms of the number of trials to completion, apparent "strategies" used to achieve synchrony and any other relevant characteristics. We will then modify the NetLogo program so that its output corresponds in a more detailed way to the observed human behavior.

We will then make observations on a new group of 32 humans and compare the behavior of that group with the behavior of our new model. Again we will modify the program in an effort to get it to display characteristics of the human population. We will reiterate this process several times with the objective of trying to develop a sense of what the minimum structure needs to be in the NetLogo model in order to account for variations in human behavior.

Pilot Project 4) Emergence in Persistent World Massively-Multiplayer Computer Games

This module builds on research that Timothy Burke has recently begun into internal economic behaviors and forms of value within existing massively-multiplayer persistent world computer games (MMOGs) like Everquest and Ultima Online.

Persistent world computer games change accumulatively over time: both the individual characters controlled by particular players and structures and features of the gameworld as a whole are affected by such changes. In Burke's first preliminary research on this subject, he has argued that they can serve as an unintentional test bed of sorts for the study of emergent phenomenon.

Here we propose to continue these studies of current massively-multiplayer games with an eye to extending the premises of Module 2 into a less-controlled environment. Massively multiplayer games effectively convert human players into rule-based autonomous agents within software environments, but in this case, the ruleset that constrains what players can do in the gameworld is being manipulated by players who bring prior desires and goals, often incompatible ones, to the act of playing. The question of whether the game itself or the prior instincts and desires of the players are producing particular kinds of persistent structures within these gameworlds is often difficult to answer. In this module, we will continue ongoing projects of ethnographic participant-observation of several MMOGs, seeking to better understand the extent to which participants impute the properties of agency/purpose/contingency to game elements and if so, why.

Submitted as a Mellon New Directions Fellowship Program Application, 9/2003

Tim Burke, Department of History, Swarthmore College,


Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology, Bryn Mawr College



Project and Significance

Outcomes and Timetable

Personal Statements

Materials Cited

Book List

Pilot Observational Projects

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