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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



Issues arising in different areas of intellectual activity sometimes turn out, despite their differing origins and guises, to be sufficiently similar to warrant an interdisciplinary approach.  Such an approach seeks explanatory principles based on characteristics that are less specific to particular phenomena than those typically paid attention to in more focused disciplinary inquiries.

A contemporary example is the rapidly evolving area variously called by a number of names, including "complex systems" or "emergent systems" (for recent history see refs 1-3).  Energized by the use of modern computing technology that makes it possible to calculate quickly the consequences of starting conditions not previously determinable by traditional mathematics, "emergent systems" research has clearly established that many previously mysterious phenomena can be accounted for in terms of the relatively simple interactions of relatively simple elements, and that similar kinds of interactions can account for higher order phenonomena in quite different contexts ranging from physics and chemistry to biology, psychology, and social behavior (refs 4-5) . 

Among the important (and unexpected) generalizations coming from the emergent systems perspective is that a wide range of phenomena occur in the absence of an architect, blueprint, or plan, that is, they are unexpected consequences of properties and interactions coming into existence for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the outcomes of those properties and interactions.   One of the reasons for the "unexpected" character of emergent phenomena is that they frequently depend on some degree of indeterminate or "random" behavior in the interacting elements.  From this follows a second important generalization: that "randomness" can underlie and even be essential for certain sorts of order.   A third important and unexpected generalization is that many of the interesting phenomena result from a "distributed" organization of the elements, that is they occur simply because of a particular pattern of interactions among a number of more or less equivalent elements, in the absence of any element functioning as a conductor or director. 

The emergent systems perspective is clearly significant and generative, as evidenced by the rapidly increasing number and variety of investigators exploring it both in its own right and in relation to an increasing number of disciplines.  At the same time, the perspective defines some important new general problems in relation to previous understandings.  Investigators (and humans in general) are inclined to make use of (and believe in) concepts like "purpose" (the idea that there is in fact a planner or architect or blueprint reflecting an outcome in mind in advance) , "agency" (the idea that individual elements can be in control of collective behaviors), and "contingency" (the idea that one's own behavior can genuinely create something new) that seem to have no obvious place in the emergent systems perspective. 

The common intuition that underlies our proposed exploration here is that for at least some phenomena it will continue to be necessary to use ideas like "purpose", "agency", and "contingency" but that it remains to be determined how to identify such phenomena, and how to conceive the interplay between purposive agent and unplanned distributed influences.  Moreover, we suspect that the meaning of the terms "purpose" and "agency" will necessarily have to be reconsidered in the process of understanding their roles in a wide range of phenomena.  Finally, we regard the problem of the meaning and significance of the terms "purpose", "agency", and "contingency" as not simply a semantic or "philosophical" issue, but rather as a matter that depend on the need, both past and future, to make sense of relevant observations. 

Hence, our ambition in this exploration is to contribute to the further development of the general "emergent systems" interdiscplinary enterprise by seeing what sense can be made within it of the words "purpose", "agency", and "contingency".  Our purpose is equally to bring the fruits of that enterrprise back to our own disciplines.   Investigators (and other humans) have a strong belief in their own capacity to control their own behavior, in their own purpose, agency, and contingency.  If humans actually consist of a distributed system of neurons and other cells, do we need to discard these beliefs as misunderstandings or is there instead a need for neuroscience to conceive of explorations yet to given adequate attention (cf refs 6-8).  Similarly, historians/social scientists (and other humans) are inclined to the belief that individual humans have been significant purposive agents.  Is this belief to be discarded or instead somehow retained in thinking about culture and cultural change?  These related disciplinary issues are very much on our respective minds in our proposed interdisciplinary exploration. 


This interdisciplinary exploration both depends on and will be partly achieved by each of us becoming more familiar with the distinctive sets of observations, perspectives ways of approaching questions, and open problems in disciplines familiar to the other, and learning to expand our own thinking by becoming engaged with them insofar as they bear on our common areas of concern.  With this objective in mind, we will each read a selection of books recommended by the other, and then prepare written dialogues on those books which examine both the books themselves and our divergent understandings of them. We expect to read and prepare commentaries on about ten books over the course of our project, five chosen from each of two lists of books each of us thinks are relevant and important.

We believe that an effective exploration of the issues at hand depends not only on synthesizing existing sets of observations and perspectives on them but equally on making new observations which contribute to and help to test evolving ideas.  We will therefore collaborate on several pilot projects aimed at these objectives.  These observational projects will contribute to our thinking during the project period and give us a basis for conceiving potential continuing collaborative observational projects in the future. 

  Most of these pilot studies themselves depend on the use of computer models of the sort that underlie much work in "emergent systems".  We will begin with NetLogo, an easily accessible modeling environment with which Grobstein is familiar, and move on to others if needed as the work evolves. To offer an example of a NetLogo model, one simulation called Termites has two types of colored pixels on a black field of pixels, one of them designated as a "termite", the other designated as a "stick". The termites are the agents, the black pixels and the sticks are the environment (the black pixels being "empty space"). The termites have three basic rules: 1) each time step, they are to move one pixel in a random direction. 2) If they are proximate to a "stick", they should "pick it up" (and change color to indicate they are carrying a stick). 3) If they are carrying a stick and they bump into another stick, they should drop the stick they're carrying in an empty space in a random direction near their  current position. With any random distribution of termites and sticks at the outset, the termites will in a fairly short time build a large circular pile of sticks, and that pile will from that point forward be a stable and largely unchanging structure within the simulation environment. Once built, it never gets taken apart. In retrospect, it is possible to work out why this happens, but there is no instruction to build a pile, no centrally coordinating agent that understands what a circular pile is, and no design or "top-down" process.

Pilot observational projects are briefly outlined below.  More complete information is provided in the Appendix

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.  To do so we will have observers in several different conditions watch NetLogo simulations or computer games, and then ask them to describe their observations.   Our interest is in the extent to which humans impute agency/purpose/contingency to inanimate entities and the circumstances that cause them to do so. We will read the narratives in comparison to our own perceptions and understandings of agency/purpose/contingency and modify our own understandings appropriately.  

Pilot Project 2) From the Inanimate to Humans.  We will use human subjects as substitutes for the "termites" in the NetLogo model described above but with several variants .  We will compare the behavior of the actual model with that of the human implemented model to see what characteristics are displayed by humans (presumed to have the qualities of contingency/purpose/agency) that are not displayed by the model.  We will also question the human participants about their experience to further explore the issues in Project 1.  We will create several variants of the NetLogo  model for comparison to the several variant human conditions. 

Pilot Project 3) From Humans to the Inanimate.  We will use an existing simple human interaction game that appears to depend on agency/purpose/contingency  as the basis for progressive development of a new NetLogo model.  The simple objective of the game is for groups of humans to reach consensus on a task without verbal communication.  The behavior of a model designed to achieve a comparable outcome will be compared with the behavior of humans playing the game.  Using repeated comparisons we will progressively alter the model in an effort to bring it into line with 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.  Such games, Burke suggests,  can serve as an test bed for the study of emergent phenomena as the characters and feature of the game world change over time.   Here we propose to extend these as an extension to a more complex realm of the inquiry of Pilot Project 1.  . We will make use of  ethnographic participant-observation of several MMOGs, to try and 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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