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Emergent Systems 2003-04 Forum

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An Urge to Organize
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-17 15:02:46
Link to this Comment: 5026

self-organizing systems arrived in the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning; see

An urge to organize
As individuals, army ants have almost no brain to speak of, just a clump of neurons inside their tiny heads. Working as a group, however, they rule the Amazon jungles, marching in formation over acres of land and flushing out thousands of insects, even scorpions, that are their prey. The ants move out and then file back in orderly lines, with the returning parties efficiently forming lanes inside the outgoing ants.
The full article will be available on the Web for a limited time:

(c) 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Do plants compute?
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-03-19 10:48:28
Link to this Comment: 5084

Ted commented recently (and possibly later recanted) "...But real plants probably don't really compute, and I wonder whether computing isn't really always very adaptive."

If real plants don't compute, then I don't know what computing is. I'd say the opposite: computing is the one thing that is being selected for, and adapted. I think we need to discuss what is "computing". Computers are the ones that don't do it very well, and don't do it very naturally.

Paul has agreed to lead a discussion on "information" in the Emergent Phenomena group. Maybe we can discuss this issue here and there.


Kupferberg talk/discussion
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-19 11:03:24
Link to this Comment: 5087

Wonderful conversation this am (as usual). A couple of quick thoughts, to remind myself (and any else) about things to think further about.

Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-03-19 15:39:10
Link to this Comment: 5094

What are the origins of the ideas behind emergence? I've started a list of readings and references inside the larger reading list at:

Please feel free to help create/edit/organize that list. Panama has added many nice annotations to the list, so it is already a nice resource.

Early writers on the ideas of emergence include: Hume, Smith, and of course Darwin.

As a cognitive scientist, I always think of intelligence when I think of modeling. Whether or not we can even model that, though, is an open question. Maybe one would want to claim that predicate logic with a database of facts is a model, although it doesn't capture too much of the essence of intelligence, to me. But if we do model intelligence, I'd want to say that is more than a model: the system would have intelligence.

It seems that in many fields when they come to make a micro/macro distinction that it spawns a new field. It is interesting that economics decided to keep both levels in one. My advice to the economists: spawn, baby, spawn!


Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-19 15:49:32
Link to this Comment: 5096

Okay, I'll bite.
WAY before Adam Smith, WAY before Darwin, there was
Ovid. Metamorphosis (1-8 A.C.E.):

...In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux....
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
Contrives. In all creation, be assured,
There is no death--no death, but only change
And innovation....
...the earth and all therein, the sky
And all thereunder change and change again,
We too ourselves, who of this world are part,
Not only flesh and blood but pilgrim souls....

Surely prescient to/for (for instance)
Loren Eiseley, "The Star Thrower" (1978):

"We are rag dolls made out of many ages and skins, changelings who have slept in wood nests or hissed in the uncouth guise of waddling amphibians. We have played such roles for infinitely longer ages than we have been men. Our identity is a dream. We are process..In modern terms, the dance of contingency, of the interdeminable, outwits us all.....Instability lies at the heart of the world...form is an illusion of the time dimension...the eternal struggle of the immediate species against its dissolution into something other...The power to change is both creative and destructive--a sinister gift which, unrestricted, leads onward toward the formless and inchoate void of the possible. This force can only be counterbalanced by an equal impulse toward specificity. Form, once arisen, clings to its identity. Each species and each individual holds tenaciously to its present nature....The evolutionists, piercing beneath the show of momentary stability, discovered, hidden in rudimentary organs, the discarded rubbish of the past. Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demoniacal stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations...But out of such desolation emerges the awsome freedom to choose--to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle.....

Last fall, Sharon Burgmayer, Andrea Friedman and I did a workshop on this topic: the delicate balance between stability and change, between safety and risk-taking, between security and novelty.

AND? while I'm trolling...
Paul's observation that "The micro/macro distinction in economics is a mirror of reductionist/wholist arguments in a whole variety of fields" also resonates for me in this--as well as in a range of other--contexts. It reminds me, for instance, of Ted Wong's discussion of Metaphor and Metonymy in the Brown Bags last semester, as well as a discussion this afternoon in the Language group, where we are now reading Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning. Bruner evokes C.S. Pierce's distinctions among "icon, index and symbol, the icon bearing 'resemblance' relationships to its referent as with a picture, the index a contingent one as in the relation between smoke and fire, the symbol depending upon a system of signs..." Icon is to index as metaphor is to metonymy as reductionism is to wholism as micro is to macro (as change is to stability...?)

Thank you, Mark, for teaching me "something about economics," by showing me how it re-plays patterns I recognize elsewhere.

Music of the Swarms
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-03-20 18:18:24
Link to this Comment: 5117

As you may have seen on the schedule, Tim has agreed to lead a discussion on "Something to do with emergent art" (a real title is forthcoming no doubt). What kinds of things might that include? Check out:

Music of the Swarms: Who needs musicians when computers can think like bees?

What might it take to create art? Can a flock of seagulls do it? Or does it take a soul, all that is human?


the medium and the message
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-26 09:59:20
Link to this Comment: 5181

A quick set of thoughts, following Rob's triggered rich and generative discussion, and a brief conversation with Tim and Mark afterwards:

There is clearly something that WORKS, in very satisfying and productive ways, in this working group. And something which, I think, is reflexively relevant to the explorations the group is engaged in. Looking inward, its worth noticing that the group itself is functioning as an emergent system, and trying to figure out what makes the group successful in this regard. My speculation:

(note: this requires something more even than historicity, time irreversibility/randomness, both top-down and bottom up causation, etc; it requires as well the capacity of elements to conceive/reflect on their own stories).

And looking outward: it is noteworthy that there is a sense of pleased "surprise" in many peoples' reactions (including mine) to what we're doing together. That suggests that the activity of collectively evolving stories which are satisfying/productive both individually and collectively is less common in academic life than it should perhaps be. That, of course, suggests that our activities could, beyond their local goals, play a useful role as well in suggesting/contributing to productive changes in the academic community at large. And that they could contribute to thinking about classroom environments/practices as well. Beyond this, my sense is that the lessons we're evolving are quite relevant to critical issues of finding better ways to conceive of national and world communities, and the relations among them.

small world research project
Name: Panama Gee
Date: 2003-03-26 14:28:03
Link to this Comment: 5184

Hi Emergenauts,

I've heard about this project from time to time, but I didn't realize that anyone could participate. Maybe you already know about it? Anyway, it came up in a talk last week and I thought I would pass it along in case any of you are interested.

I've attached an excerpt from the front page, below.


"In 1967, the Harvard Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram sent roughly 300 letters to randomly selected people in Omaha, Nebraska with the instruction to get the letter to a single "target" person in Boston using only personal contacts.

Milgram gave each "sender" some information about the target including name, location, and occupation, so that if the sender did not know the target (and it was extremely unlikely that they would), they could send the letter to someone they did know who they thought would be "closer" to the target. Thus began a chain of senders, each member of the chain attempting to zero in on the target by sending the letter to someone else: a friend, family member, business associate, or casual acquaintance.

Milgram's surprising finding was that for the 60 chains that eventually reached the target, the average number of steps in a chain was around six, a result that has entered folklore as the phrase "Six degrees of separation."

But is it really true? While Milgram's first experiment suggests it is, other experiments have been less conclusive, and no experiment has been done to test the theory on a global scale.

This is what we are trying to do and we need your help."

on agents and agency
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-02 10:57:38
Link to this Comment: 5249

Wonderful conversation this morning, as always. The issue that particularly sticks in my mind is that of the meaning of "agents" and "agency". The critical broad idea that comes out of "emergence" is that agents, while having their own properties (a stable rule set created without knowledge of the circumstances they might encounter in the future), are also influenced in their behavior by collective properties (stigmergy) which may reflect both current and past inputs from other agents/the "environment". What this means is that agents are both influenced by and influencers of collective properties. This may seem overly abstract, but it has important general and practical consequences.

Among other things, it means that "emergence" is NOT a perspective which should be seen as discouraging "individual social action" (the issue came up several months ago in a grad idea working group discussion (which includes social work students) based on reading of Johnson's Emergence and earlier of Pinker's The Blank Slate; see and The actions of an individual are in general NOT able to bring about arbitrary (wished for?) changes in collective properties, but they are also not, by the same token, irrelevant for such changes.

To put it differently, if individuals see themselves as contributing parts of social/cultural phenomena, then they will in fact be so. If they do not see themselves that way, they will continue to be so but will be less effective/"meaningful" contributors in terms of their own distinctive aspirations/desires. There are of course, as I suggested, immediate political significances to this conclusion (see The Place of the US in the World Community for an example of an effort to facilitate individually-influenced stigmergy and a modest proposal for an example of the possibilities and limitations of individual action).

And now returning, armed with the practical, to the theoretical ... Agency, in the sense of an agent being both influenced by and influencer of global properties, is a property of agents in any emergent system having stigmergic elements. It does NOT depend on either consciousness or free will. What DOES depend on those (and hence is a unique requirement for the internal instruction sets in the case of human interactions, and probably those of some other animals) is the existence of a "choice" as to whether to regard oneself as having agency. In THIS sense, agency is an emergent property (of evolution) and one which in turn makes possible (but not inevitable) the emergence of new phenomena (kinds of social organization) which were not previously possible (cf Free Will? and Variability in Brain Function and Behavior and The Brain's Images: Co-Constructing Reality and the Self and Getting It Less Wrong the Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism).

PS. What this makes me think of is a possible modification of the "segregated neighborhood" model which would evolve a solution to creating integrated neighborhoods. I THINK its doable, and if so would help to sharpen the question of what is/is not necessary for individual agency in the "free will" sense. Anyhow, thanks again to all for the stimulation, and I hope all this is stigmergically useful to someone.

free & smart?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-02 13:01:47
Link to this Comment: 5253

For Mark, who (like me) is still trying to get a handle on this word, and (to do that) needs a short definition:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (where I go for direction, whenever I am lost) stigmergy is "The process by which the results of an insect's activity act as a stimulus to further activity"; it was first used in 1959, in book called Insectes Sociaux: "The stimulation of the workers by the very performances they have achieved is a significant one inducing accurate and adaptable response, and has been named stigmergy." I can't reproduce the etymology of the word here in Greek, but loosely translated its roots mean "pricking" (stigma) + "ergon" (work). Mark was right--the root is the same as that for "stimga" (=the result of a mark; tatooed)--but w/out attaching any "stigma" (if you get my drift).

Which leads me (sort of!) to MY question of the week:

I want to separate what was put together far too casually for my taste during one moment of this morning's conversation, when identity was defined/identified w/ "following a certain rule set," and it was proposed that, in an emergent system, although behavior changes, those rules do not. My red flags went up. Like Karen, I'm ready to get beyond models now. I want to keep free will into the conversation--the will of thinking, self-reflective agents, and see if emergence, stigmergy, synergy are still useful ideas. I'm tired of talking about "stupid" agents (including the several instances of self-attribution that occured today).

Smartly yours,


Cause and effect
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-03 02:16:39
Link to this Comment: 5257

OK, I'm up much too late, but here are some thoughts anyway.

Taking a step back: why are we interested in stigmergy? Because we are looking for the mechanisms that explain how simple interacting agents can do far more as an interacting group than they can as a set of individuals. We are looking for the mechanisms that cause ants (for example) to do what they do, and also wondering in what ways we (for example) can affect our larger group/level/society.

But maybe the basic notions of cause and effect are too rooted in a reductionist world. Not that I'm advocating abandoning them completely, but merely suggesting that the way we normally think about cause/effect doesn't fit very well in describing an emergent phenomena.

Steve Grand has a sometimes-clever book, "Creation: Life and how to make it". In it he describes "the web of causality" which seems to be a better idea. The idea is that it is very difficult in an interconnected system to ascribe a particular cause to any particular effect. Agents can affect themselves. The experiences (historicity) of an agent affects its behavior. The environment affects its behavior. Social interactions affect its behavior. Newspapers can affect its behavior. The sum total of everything (locally accessable) potentially contributes something to the behavior of an agent.

If we give up on the simplistic notions of cause and effect, then we also will be left with very different "explanations" of a phenomena. In short, any abstract explanation will gloss over the details, and therefore miss the very core attributes that makes a complex system tick; it won't be an explanation at all! They will just be first-order approximations that don't have anything to do with how a system really works.

This may sound like I'm pessimistic on the future of science. But I'm not. I think that models are the key. Actual models don't just instantiate some abstract theory (if they did they wouldn't do anything interesting); they are the explanation.

So, I guess I'm wary of thinking about "stigmergy" as a tool that agents use to organize collective thoughts. Really, it is just us trying to abstract away from the gory details of a part of the web of causality. But the devil is in the details. Or, more optimisticly, god is in the details.


Maybe not emergent, but still collaborative, archi
Name: Ted W.
Date: 2003-04-03 11:17:41
Link to this Comment: 5258

It's not really emergence, and it's not really architecture. It's still a great, fun example of collaborative creativity. It's Mr. Wong's (no relation) Soup'partments:

more emergent spaces
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-03 16:25:25
Link to this Comment: 5263

Well, I don't seem to have the right plug-in to add a floor to Mr. Wong's Soup'partments (emergence blocked by inadequate technology; access to said technology blocked by own stupidity), BUT Ted's invitation into that sort of "collaborative creativity" put me strongly in mind of two more architectural spaces in which you can play @ being the exploring ant, seeing if you can best find your way by re-tracing the path you yourself have just laid down or by finding a novel one (I AM going to keep free will--@ least in its "weak" sense as choice -- in this conversation!)

Try out both Serendip's House and Transformation . The latter site has one particular image "Inverting Power Games," which strikes me as a particularly wonderful example of stigmergy (and which Sharon Burgmayer, the artist, actually glossed over a year ago as "What might result if the power localized in a few players...was conjoined to involve all"). That god might be in THOSE details has already been imaged, too, @ Science and Spirit .

Wonder if ANY of this will have ANY relationship to the "emergent art" Tim will be talking about next week?
Eager to see,
pictorially yours,

Name: Panama Gee
Date: 2003-04-03 20:19:21
Link to this Comment: 5264

Excerpt from:
E. Bonabeau, M. Dorigo, and G. Theraulaz, "Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems." Oxford Press (1999):14-16.

"Self-organization in social insects oftern requires interactions among insects: such interactions can be direct or indirect. Direct interactions are the "obvious" interactions: antennation, trophallaxis (food or liquid exchange), mandibular contact, visual contact, chemical contact (the ordor of nearby nestmates), etc. Indirect interactions are more subtle: two individuals interact indirectly when one of them modifies the environment and the other responds to the new environment at a later time. Such an interaction is an example of stigmergy. In addition to, or in combination with, self-organiztion, stigmergy is the other most important theoretical concept of this book. Grasse [157, 158] introduced stigmergy (from the Greek stigma: sting, and ergon: work) to explain task coordination and regulation in the context of nest reconstruction in termites of the genus Macrotermes. Grasse showed that the coordination and regulation of building activities do not depend on the workers themselves but are mainly achieved by the nest structure: a stimulating configuration into another confirguration that may trigger in turn another (possible different) action performed by the same termite or any other worker in the colony. Nest reconstruction consists of first building strips and pillars and finally the interpillar space is filled to make walls.... "

"Stigmergy is easily overlooked, as it does not explain the detailed mechanisms by which individuals coordinate their activities. However, it does provide a geral mechanism that relates individual and colony-level behaviors: individual behavior modifies the environment, which in turn modifies the behavior of other individuals."

[157] Grasse, P.-P. "La Reconstruction du nid et les Coordinations Inter-Individuelles chez Bellicositermes Natalensis et Cubitermes sp. La theorie de la Stigmergie: Essai d'interpretation du Comportment des Termites Constructeurs." Insect. Soc. 6 (1959): 41-80.

[158] Grasse, P.-P. "Termitologia, Tome II." Fondation des Societes. Construction. Paris: Masson, 1984.

Rules and identity
Name: Ted
Date: 2003-04-04 15:43:29
Link to this Comment: 5269

Are two agents of the same kind because they share a rule set? I might be fine with this test, depending on how we define having the same rule set. I'm completely willing to say that the rule set for one cell in Conway's Game of Life is the same as the rule set for another cell, even if the two cells have different environments and therefore give rise to different behaviors. That's the whole point, after all. But I worry about the case of two different rule sets being tacked together into some big conditional. Like: follow rule-table A if timestep < 50; else follow rule-table B.

And like Karen and Anne, I want to think about this in terms of examples from nature. here are the examples I gravitate to. Ant-colony behavior. Harvester ants in the Arizona desert live in colonies which can get as old as fifteen years, even though individual ants don't live longer than one year. There is ant-level behavior (e.g., doing tasks, choosing tasks on the basis of frequency of interaction with other ants), and there's colony-level behavior (e.g., global foraging strategy, aggressiveness toward neighboring colonies). Here's what's cool: colony-level behavior changes even though ant-level behavior stays the same. Ants still choose their tasks the same way, but because the colony is larger and the nest has a different architecture (thereby changing interaction frequencies), colonies change their foraging strategies and aggressiveness over time. This, I think, is a perfectly good example of having the same rule set -- late ants share rules with early ants, but these rules play out differently because the environment or the global state has changed. Developmental genes. (And here I risk exposing my great ignorance of genetics, so please bear with me.) Some genes are for structures, different structures depending on where and when they're being expressed. The wheres and whens are determined by concentrations of signal chemicals, which are produced upon activation of other genes. The one example I have on hand is Antennapedia, which when rendered nonfunctional allows a leg to be produced in the developingfruit fly where an antenna ought to be. That is, it's a gene that somehow tells the developing structure to be an antenna instead of a leg.

In my schematic language, here's the rule: Make an antenna if you're in the head; else make a leg. Should that count as one rule? If so, then the differential behavior of the development process should be seen as emergent. I don't think it should count. Counting that would be like counting colony-level behavioral change if the ants had some time-dependent rule, or counting sandpiles if someone rigged it such that cascades obey a power law after some given time step.

Rules and memory
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-05 01:20:58
Link to this Comment: 5270

Ted asked:

"Are two agents of the same kind because they share a rule set? ... Here's what's cool: colony-level behavior changes even though ant-level behavior stays the same. Ants still choose their tasks the same way, but because the colony is larger and the nest has a different architecture (thereby changing interaction frequencies)..."

But how do interaction frequencies change the behavior of an ant? There must be a place in memory that is keeping track, and the rules must be sensitive to that change. We could represent that in a rule, like:

IF memory[4] > .45 THEN MOVE left

(consider memory[4] to be the 4th place in memory where some internal counter gets incremented with each encounter with another ant).

But if we allow that, then why not something like:

IF memory[4] > memory[5] * memory[1] THEN MOVE memory[2] direction

(where all of these memory positions are counters, sensors, and other internal states of all kinds).

In this manner, the rules could be the same for a million ants, but they would all have different behaviors... even if you had only one rule! Of course, if ants all had similar experiences, then they might all have similar (subtly different) behaviors.

I'm just pointing out that memory + memory-sensitive-rules can allow for much more individuality than those systems without memory, and the rules don't need to change a bit.


P.S. - memory is just internal stigmergy, or stigmergy is just external memory :)

Name: Rob Woznia
Date: 2003-04-06 09:06:56
Link to this Comment: 5275

Hi Folks!

With all due respect to Bonabeau, Dorigo, and Theraulaz, and possibly (depending on what he means) to Doug, I think that the following way of talking about stigmergy:

"two individuals interact indirectly when one of them modifies the environment and the other responds to the new environment at a later time. Such an interaction is an example of stigmergy...individual behavior modifies the environment, which in turn modifies the behavior of other individuals" (B D & T)

"memory is just internal stigmergy, or stigmergy is just external memory" (DB)

misses something critical about the process, whether or not we want to use the term "stigmergy" to describe it.

It isn't JUST a case of individual behavior modifying the environment and in turn modifying the behavior of others (i.e., indirect or delayed feedback), it's rather that LOTS of individual behaviors pool into patterned aggregate changes in the environment (e.g., pheromone trails left behind by group activity, where individual variability tends to wash out) that in turn modify the behavior of groups of individuals. This is what links individual behavior to colony behavior. If we want to use "stigmergy" for the simpler case of delayed feedback, which is all that seems to me to be implied in "individual behavior modifies the environment, which in turn modifies the behavior of other individuals" fine; but then we need a new term for the fact that "individual behaviors pool into patterned aggregate changes in the environment...." "Colmergy"? (Anne where's your OED?) or perhaps "Durkmergy" in honor of Durkheim who may, if my memory serves me right and it may not, coined the term "collective representation."

A propos Doug's P.S., "colmergy/Durkmergy" is clearly much more than "just external memory." Internal (i.e., agent) memory, on the other hand, (at least what psychologists call "semantic memory" which is essentially memory for the generic rather than the episodic") may very well be a kind of "colmergy/Durkmergy" in that it is the patterned aggregate of "traces" (or activation levels between nodes or whatever is actually in there) in which individual variability tends to wash out. This is what gives memory its power and efficiency.


P.S. I hope that there is no stigma attached to those who neologize!

Rules, memory, colmergy
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-06 10:20:20
Link to this Comment: 5276

Doug writes, " But how do interaction frequencies change the behavior of an ant? There must be a place in memory that is keeping track, and the rules must be sensitive to that change." No. The whole point is that there's no need for change to the agent's internal state. Colony behavior changes over the course of years, even though no ant (except the queen, and she seems not to be involved in these behaviors) lives even one year. Yes, memory is powerful and can allow for changes in behavior without changes in the rules. But memory must not always be necessary -- or stigmergy must substitute for memory.

I agree with Rob that the collective nature of stigmergic memory (we should all have gone to Carol Bernstein's retirement events!) makes stigmergy different from memory. There's something here that's also why I disagree with the characterization of stigmergy as "delayed" whatever. What we describe as delayed is generally (always?) a discrete event. The effect of a stigmergic modification to the environment is no event -- rather, either it results in some event (the interaction, or contribution to behavior) after an unspecifiably long delay, or else its effects are distributed among (I want to say, smeared across) many future events.

I suppose this is the point of Rob's neologisms. If we take stigmergy to mean delayed feedback or delayed interaction, though, without the collectiveness, then I think we can simply dispose of stigmergy. Dynamical-systems people (my exposure is through population dynamics) have long known about the importance of time lags. There's no need to invent or invoke new ideas like emergence or even environment to account for time lags, even though time lags have been shown to be instrumental in producing chaos.

A few thoughts re: neologisms.

stigmergy, stigma
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-06 10:28:47
Link to this Comment: 5277

I just looked up stigma in Michelle's Greek lexicon. It appears in Herodotus and in the Bible: the mark of a pointed instument, a tattoo-mark, brand.

Gauging the "Enough Point"
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-06 14:10:32
Link to this Comment: 5281

As per Ted's suggestion, I did go Carol Bernstein's retirement events, and found them quite rich and generative (see postings on Language and Time). I didn't find much there, though, to contribute to our discussion here: Carol's project (and those of her teacher and student who also spoke) has to do w/ re-capturing and re-presenting what has already happened (particularly that which is traumatic, catastrophic). The work is quite preservative in intent ("we must not forget") and quite melancholy in mode ("how can we bear to remember?"). The past pressed very hard on us during those discussions--and I found myself wanting the less time-bound work of emergence, which laments less the "absence of closure."

On the other hand, still musing over (one of the) questions left hanging last week, whether "criticality is critical," I found a melancholy note in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Gauging the 'Enough Point'" (and what happens when you fail to do so accurately):

"We are leaping across thresholds...That's how thresholds work: Up to a certain point something is good, and past that point there's trouble....Judging when you've reached this 'enough point' is, admittedly, no easy trick. You might stop short and miss some real improvement; you might overshoot and hit some wall....It's always going to be a guess, a question of feel, an art....But there are plenty of clues to alert us that we're near a technological saturation point, past which we will hit radically diminishing returns. The sheer speed of the world...overwhelms our ability to keep pace; we feel a kind of frantic restlessness which we sense will be alleviated only by slowing down."

More on neologisms later. Am slowing down for now.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-06 22:03:40
Link to this Comment: 5288

Thanks, Ted, for what (to me, a word lover) is an amazing range of thoughts. To think of neologisms as "semantic bifurcations," as ways of making order out of apparent disorder, and as themselves emergent events, stigmergic modifications of the environment, just... blows me...back to the OED for more richness:

this term, for the "practice of using new words, innovation in language" first appeared in 1800: "Quaintness, the unavoidable companion of neologism, is...hostile to grace"
and again in 1858: "Neologism, in revolutionary times, is not an infirmity or caprice."
and 1867: "Since that day neologisms have fertilised the barrenness of our Saxon."

Most interesting, however, since the term was first introduced into this conversation by the psychologist in our group, is that it has a very particular meaning in Rob's discipline:

"An invented or concocted word or word-sound without recognizable meaning, freq. interpolated in otherwise correct sentences, and used by persons in a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders"; see

(1905): "Neologisms the meaning of which may remain absolutely enigmatical to the patient himself...are frequent in the period of dementia."
(1906): "In the typical form [of mania]...neologisms and symbols are found in great number."
(1932): "The verbal repetition of these 'new' words neologisms or senseless words invented by himself."
(1960): "Word-formations, which are so bizarre that they immediately bring to mind the neologisms of dementia praecox."
(1969): "Other patients refer the origin of neologisms to hallucinatory experiences."

So...assuming that emerging amongst us is...something really new, I propose we add a new (not @ all dismal) word, "neologismal," to our emerging vocabulary.  

The pure products of America go crazy
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-07 10:32:13
Link to this Comment: 5292

Anne's reference to a passage decrying the "sheer speed of the world" brought to my mind William Carlos Williams's remarkable, breathless poem, To Elsie, or the Pure Products of America Go Crazy -- and especially the last stanza ("No one/ to witness/ and adjust, no one to drive the car"), in which Williams blames desperation, despair, and the disintegration of noble folk traditions on the absence of a central organizing agent.

We should occasionally pay more attention to the dark side of emegence -- how segregation emerges (thanks, Mark K.), how monopolies and dictatorships emerge, how Williams's Elsie, "her great/ ungainly hips and flopping breasts/ addressed to cheap/ jewelry/ and rich young men with fine eyes" emerges.

Of course, we'll think about all that with plenty of salt, noting that the passing of ethnic and cultural purity isn't all bad and that there may be extraordinary beauty in the "isolated flecks."

Who shoves whom around inside the careenium?
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-08 01:10:50
Link to this Comment: 5310

Speaking of ants and stigmergy, this reminds me of at least a couple of clever papers by Doug Hoftsadter: " ... Ant Fugue", and "Who shoves whom around inside the careenium?". As way of relating these papers to the current discussion:

One possible point to argue in Rob's quote of B, D & T:

...individual behavior modifies the environment, which in turn modifies the behavior of other individuals

We should be careful to explore what causes what in the above example: is it the individual behavior of an ant that triggers the events? Or is it somehow the collection (e.g., the colony via the stigmergy)?

When the ant begins to move, we usually don't say that a cell in the ant's brain began making signals to get the whole body moving. Nope, we talk about the ant as a whole turning left by some rule.

But, when we talk about a group of ants, we talk about the individual ants modifying the environment. But we should be talking about the colony-level organization. For some reason we give special preference to talking about ants as agents, but not ant brain cells as agents, nor ant colonies as agents.

So, I see a direct analogy between what brain cells do, and what ants do. Do you want to call one stigmergy and the other not? I'm am a lumper and so I'd rather not try to make some artificial distinction between those two. Both of these systems are causing changes in the environment that can be interpreted as "information" in the proper context.

I'm not sure what the word is that desribes both of these situations, but here is the begining of a definition:

a signal generated by a part of a system that interacts with other parts (or other signals). The interaction causes two separate levels of a system to be integrated, causing emergent properties.

Here's a conjecture about the parts: it is necessary that the parts have limited capacity about what they are doing. For example, if the ants attempted to "understand" the "meaning" of the pheromone (and thus change their behavior), the colony-level organization would break down.

Said another way: a network of Einsteins would make a really lousy brain. "That Einstein is firing! Why? I don't understand what all the chatter is about; I'm thinking! You never fire when I want you to!"


Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-08 01:42:37
Link to this Comment: 5312

Ted said:

"No. The whole point is that there's no need for change to the agent's internal state. Colony behavior changes over the course of years, even though no ant (except the queen, and she seems not to be involved in these behaviors) lives even one year. Yes, memory is powerful and can allow for changes in behavior without changes in the rules. But memory must not always be necessary -- or stigmergy must substitute for memory."

So, just replace what I said amout memory[n] with sensor[pheromone]. You're right: one "rule" (no memory, just a pheromone sensor) and you have an infinite amount of variation in your ants, all with a single rule.

So, memory and stigmergy could perform the same function to a single ant. But stigmergy has the added benefit of being one-of-those-things-that-I-don't-have-a-word-for. Here, let me bifurcate:


more definitions
Name: Panama Gee
Date: 2003-04-08 10:34:41
Link to this Comment: 5322

To continue with our discussion of defintions, I found this "glossary of terms" that I thought some of you might be interested in (stigmergy isn't mentioned). It is worth noting that the URL, "cna" stands for "Center of Naval Analyses" and isaac stands for "Irreducible Semi-Autonomous Adaptive Combat".

I'm assuming that these are definitions that those who worked on the ISAAC project developed. It seems that their use of words, like "agent" for example, is much more specific to their application than the sense in which we use the terms. I found it interesting to note the differences between their defintions of some terms and our use/meaning of them in our discussions.

memory != pheromone
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-08 15:06:14
Link to this Comment: 5326

Doug said, "So, just replace what I said amout memory[n] with sensor[pheromone]."

My only objection: an agent's memory is accessible only to it, isn't it? Pheromone deposited on a trail is accessible to (and modifiable by) everyone.

More bifurcations (or coalescences?):

Plot generation for comics
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-09 10:28:09
Link to this Comment: 5338

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, has a fascinating (and well designed) website, The whole site is completely great, but in connection to this morning's (superfun) discussion, I want to draw everyone'e attention to a couple of somewhat-interesting and a couple of hugely interesting things.

In the "Inventions" section he describes a couple of nifty games for generating comic-strip plots, 5-Card Nancy, and The Story Machine. Neither is actually implemented on the computer (this is why these are only somewhat interesting), but the graphics are cool.

In the "Online Comics" section, there's a reader-generated strip. First look at "Original Recipe Carl," which is a brilliant examination of narrative structure and modularity. Then look at "Choose Your Own Carl," which is the Carl strip implemented as a narrative network (multiple paths exist simulataneously), with panels suggested by readers.

from Tim's session
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-09 14:33:18
Link to this Comment: 5339

Rich conversation, as always. Some notes for myself, and anyone else who can make use of them. I like very much the intersected bottom-up, top-down notion of finding the usefully new/suprising. Basic idea is that one COULD start with randomly typing monkeys (though I agree with Rob that in practice one usually has some initial constraints, is interesting to think more about the tradeoff there: the more constraints the less likely to come up with something new but the quicker one might?), so long as one has a a top-down editor. The function of the latter is to have an existing "story", where the issue then is whether the new thing is sufficiently unpredicted by the story to make it interesting and simultaneously sufficiently close so that it can be incorporated into the story (the U-shaped curve which shows up also in discussions of the relation between complexity and information content).

Am also attracted by the similarity between such a "within range mismatch detector" and some ideas about how the nervous system fundamentally works (create model, test model by generating output, comparing resulting input to expectation ... cf Along related lines, it seems to me increasingly important to recognize that the unconscious/metonymic probably does NOT have temporal/narrative structure (a slight but important modification from So this has to emerge somehow from the bottom-up/top-down interaction.

Final point, I think there is something quite profound about the "AI doesn't know how to leave out the boring bits" remarks. In biological evolution, of course, there IS a more or less random generation of things, and what order one sees DOES result from leaving out the "boring bits" (this is what one actually means by 'natural selection'). Or, to put it differently, death is an essential element of evolution (and emergence?). See for an effort to think through the significance of evolution/emergence in a different context. And we'll hopefully get back to the "death" issue in an upcoming session on information.

Linked Images
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-09 15:53:35
Link to this Comment: 5340

Turns out it wasn't exactly free will I was longing for but rather a particular version of it: creativity (aka "aethestically useful surprise"). Thank you, Tim--and all the rest of you for further adumbrations.

I'm laughing with delight @ the neologismic (=orgasmic?) energy recently displayed by Doug and Ted. To paraphrase my friend Andrea Friedman, w/ whom I've been sharing these conversations: "I love the new words, love even more that your new words are new words about making up new words, and I love even MORE that you are making up words as you need them. That's chutzpah."

But now my attention thas been captured less by "emergent narrative" (which still seems to me indistinguishable from narrative-as-I-have-known-it) than by the emergence of new images. Paul and I are piloting a new course in the Bio, English and CSem Programs, called The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, so you can see why I was so engaged by Tim's presentation, this morning, on Creativity and Emergence (=Evolution, right??? RIGHT??)

The images we used to illustrate the syllabus were suggested by Andrea (see above re: chutzpah); each one is a "renga," or "linked image," generated when artists exchange and then modify computer graphics art works on telecommunication networks; they are VERY powerful individually and even more so in sequence. See for a display of a range of this work. It resembles in some fascinating ways the work Tim teased us w/ this morning: "Bush Soul," created by "Emergence."

Yum. Not sure yet about the death part of this, but...ready for more.

increasing death, increasing instability, increasi
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-16 16:33:43
Link to this Comment: 5418

Well, I'm getting surer and surer about the death part of this (or @ least I've told my students I am).

Ted's talk this morning pushed the edges of my mathematical abilities/knowledge, but/so I found it a very rich one. I find myself wanting to understand better what was said early on, what "non-biologists can't seem to understand:" that "evolution does not optimize," is not meaningful, that evolving mechanisms "have no adaptive significance." And I very much want to understand better the implications of Ted's "suggestive" suggestion at the end of his talk about mutual information (about which I'd welcome further illumination/illustration/information...)

But what I found most generative was something Ted said in the middle: when "your cues are less good, you'll hedge your bets more"; that is, the MORE varied the signals, the LESS varied the resultant behavior. This is a very intriguing and troubling thought for me, as I think about applying it to human behavior. I'm reminded, for instance, of the conversation going on in the forum on The Place of the U.S. in the World Community, the notion that we respond to the world's increasing instability by (futilely) attempting to build constructions which will not change.

Evolution's "goal"
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-17 01:06:08
Link to this Comment: 5430

Thanks, Ted, for the presentation. It was a good example of the application of a GA to a real problem. Just a couple of thoughts on evolution as an optimizer:

As Ann pointed out, there were comments this morning about frustration from those that study life (both biological and artificial) that others see evolution as an optimizer of some fitness function. Of course, when we use evolutionary models, that's exactly what we do: we optimize some function. We can also do it when we breed dogs or flowers: we can have in mind some measure of fitness (big and purple, or spotted) and select on those criteria. Purple flowers, spotted dogs.

But this is not what natural evolution does. Evolution has no "goal" or "fitness" of some task. Nonetheless, we have seen a "progression" from simple creatures to more complex ones. But it's not because complexity is nature's goal. It is a natural consequence of the process (limited resources).

Deepak and I are trying to develop artificial intelligence without having a fitness function to optimize. We see this paradigm in co-evolutionary models. In this way, the model's idea of fitness is grounded in the model. The problem is, though, we never seem to get the complexity to emerge out of these models like we see in real life. I suspect it is because of the limited ways in which the pieces can interact to produce new things.


more on evolution and complexity
Name: Karen Grei
Date: 2003-04-18 14:05:23
Link to this Comment: 5441

In response to Doug's comments about the emergence of complexity as a consequence of evolution, it's important to keep in mind that there are plenty of very simple organisms extant today. Bacteria are just as "fit" for conditions today as are we. As I prepare for a presentation on current attempts to model everything in a living organism, this notion is particularly intriguing. Is more complexity necessary? Evidentally not. Is more complexity more "fit"? Apparently not, at least under current conditions. I invite comments. Karen

Re Doug, Karen, evolution
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-20 18:12:25
Link to this Comment: 5447

Evolution has been much on my mind recently, because of a series of talk/discussions in philosophy of science (see links from course schedule, as well as a journal club in biology several weeks ago having to do with an interesting paper on altruism that I meant to post here, have mislaid, will have to go back and find.

Bottom line is that evolution has had (even today) a bad wrap. As Doug says, it actually has "no goal", not even the "maximization of fitness", but there is a "progression" of SOMETHING. As Karen points out, "progression" does not mean improvement. But may, as both Karen and Doug say, have to do with "complexity" (see discussion of evolution of brain size). There's a clear explanation for this in what Gould called the "left-wall effect": with random change from any starting point, new things will appear in whatever space is currently empty (if one starts with maximal simplicity, hence at the left wall, the new things must appear to the right, ie at greater complexity). Note that it does NOT, contra Doug, depend on "limited resources", (this is the "bad wrap" which still hangs on, and which relates to altruism, as I'll get back to some time) but only on random change of a kind which can yield forms of increased stable complexity.

Upshot is that I suspect what's keeping our models from exhibiting the kind of progressive emergence they should given a consideration of emergence as evolution is a failure to understand what is required for "increased stable complexity" and to incorporate that into our models. I don't think its "limited resources" but it may be something having to do with the exploitation of entropy increases. I don't think I'll have this worked out in time for our next session but maybe some relevant background ... ?

ecology, biodiversity, evolution, selection, scarc
Name: Ted W.
Date: 2003-04-21 14:31:59
Link to this Comment: 5451

Karen is right to point out that bacteria are still around. (In a really amusing essay, Planet of the Bacteria, Stephen Jay Gould argues that by any number of criteria, bacteria dominate the earth.) we could ask, though, why the bacteria are around at all. Or if the bacteria are around, why are we?

I ask this because Gauss demonstrated, in what we now call the Principle of Competitive Exclusion, that two species cannot simultaneously occupy the same ecological niche. one species always outcompetes the other and drives it to extinction. It's only a slight exaggeration to claim that community ecology, one of the larger branches of ecology, sprouted and flourished nourished by the question that the Principle raises: why are there so many species in the world? Why are there a quarter million species of plant, when all plants are limited by only a handful of different nutrients? Why are there so many species of tropical tree, when the whole forest seems more or less uniform in moisture and soil quality? Why are there several species of marine invertebrates in the intertidal zone, when in the laboratory one species always eats the others to extinction? In general the answers have been versions of these two notions: (1) the world is composed of many, many niches, and (2) multispecies communities tend toward one species's exclusion of the others, but perturbations to the system always reset the clocks. That is, there are so many plants because plants make fine-scale distinctions among environments on the basis of subtle differences in the ratios of the available nutrients. Or, one plant would dominate the forest if not for the fact that hurricanes keep knocking back whatever species is ever ascendant.

Anyway, back to the point. Bacteria and we are around to enjoy each other's company, either because nature hasn't gotten around to killing bacteria or us off, or (more likely in my opinion) the environment is so complex that bacteria and we don't actually compete for the same set or resources. That is, if resources were limiting in a niche-relevant way, I think that either complexity wouldn't have evolved, or complexity would have evolved and we'd have lost the simple organisms.

Here's where I see a source of confusion: evolution isn't the same thing as natural selection. Any change in a population would be evolution and wouldn't necessarily be directional. Natural selection is directional and does take a population toward local fitness maxima.

I think evolution is best thought of as a phenomenon and not a process. The main process (or mechanism) is natural selection. (Whether natural selection is the main source of interestingness is open to debate these days. Emergence of order may also be important.) So I agree with Paul that evolution doesn't require scarcity of resources. But natural selection does require scarcity, and if we believe that selection is the main driver of evolution, then we should also believe that scarcity is required for most of the evolution we're interested in.

Name: Ted W.
Date: 2003-04-21 14:49:55
Link to this Comment: 5454

Sometime this weekend I had a thought about endosymbiosis. It's one of those thoughts that might've happened in a dream: i can't reproduce it in all its detail, and I'm not confident that the original thought (much less its incomplete reconstruction) is as fascinating as it had seemed.

As you all remember from Intro Bio, the mitochondria in our cells are believed to be the descendants of free-living ancestors which were engulfed but (for some reason) not digested by the also free-living ancestors of our cells. Since that fateful First Supper, the two lineages (that of the host cell and that of the endosymbiont) have coevolved by a process which has probably been driven largely by natural selection.

Natural selection is of course all about the environment. What's interesting here is that the environment of the endosymbiont is the host cell. The host cell's environment includes more than the endosymbiont, but it's certainly the case that its environment is affected by the endosymbiont, though from the inside.

The endosymbiont lineage and the host-cell lineage both evolve. They move around in genotype spaces (where each location in the space corresponds to a genome sequence). How is one lineage's position determined by its position in the previous time step? By some selection rule, where the action of selection is itself partly determined by the position of the other lineage. So the endosymbiont lineage affects selection on the host-cell lineage (that is, on its environment!), and the host-cell lineage in turn affects the endosymbiont lineage's next position.

It's indirect, reciprocal stigmergy.

Now that I think about it, it seems to me that indirect, reciprocal stigmergy is common, not unique to endosymbiotic systems. Okay.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-23 09:54:01
Link to this Comment: 5502

Thanks for joining in stroll down path this morning, for having already pruned/shaped it, for willingness to spend another hour next week seeing what else emerges along this particular direction. The notes I was working from (with annotations from this morning) are available at Pleased of course to have additional annotations here. The notes also indicate the areas this morning leads to in my mind, and gives some links both for this morning and next week if you're inclined to do some poking around in this neck of the woods on your own. Very much looking forward to continuing the conversation, seeing whether collectively we can get where I couldn't get on my own.

necessary death
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-23 12:58:33
Link to this Comment: 5504

So... being the one who first "expressed some concern" about the pattern of death, and the one who has been worrying the matter incessently since--waffling between quoting Ovid's saying, there is "no death, but only change/And innovation," and giving sermons to my students about how death is essential to emergence--I'm impatient/eager/unsure I can wait til next week to find out whether it actually IS "necessary" or "just" a (bad? good?) side effect....

Anyhow, as a placeholder and sobering reminder of the LOCAL social relevance of these questions, see the e-mail we all just got advertising
*** Better Dead Than Coed ***
***T-shirt now available in PINK!***

Am wondering, obviously, what role the insights of the Emergent Phenomena group can/could play/ARE playing in the "death" of the old/"evolution" of the new (could there BE a new?) Bryn Mawr....

Necessary death? Yes
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-24 00:54:20
Link to this Comment: 5512

I'm working on a longer post that needs some more thought relating to Paul's story this morning (what are the essential properties to create an emergent phenomena?), but let me throw in my two cents on death:

When Anne first asked the question "is death necessary?" as I was doing the demonstration of the Genetic Algorithm and Genetic Programming, I said "No". The term "death" as an appropriate term for what happens to those "individuals" in the models: they are (usually) removed from the population and no longer contribute in any way to the "search".

I said that death wasn't necessary and maybe removing it form the model would be an interesting experiment. That is, keep all of the individuals around, letting the population size grow after each generation. But I think that that would be a very bad idea.

Death, in the model, does at least a few things:

  1. Keeps the population size reasonable so that good combinations of two individuals are likely (probability is high they might "mate" using crossover)
  2. Focuses resources (machine time and space) on the areas of the search space that look more promising compared to other areas
  3. Makes room in the "probability space" so that novel things have a chance of catching on. Too much dead wood, and they get drowned (so to speak, because of course they wouldn't die) out
On the other hand, there are models that keep certain members around forever. For example, in many variations of the models the best individual is kept from each generation so that, if necessary, the programmer can go back to some previous point in time to recover a more fit specimen if it later got eliminated by random chance.

Death is as important in the models as limited resources and competition: without it, evolution of complexity couldn't happen. I believe that real evolution could have "solved" the "death problem" if that had been advantageous to do so. Keep in mind that the process we call evolution (and death) are an emergent properties of the system.

Natural death is the ultimate altruistic step of an organism taking itself out to make room for a fresh try. (Reminds me of a quip that Bill Wulf said when he was here last year: "Know how to change a department? One grave at a time.")


Some comments on evolution and competition
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-24 16:53:23
Link to this Comment: 5516

Some comments on Paul's presentation.


Species are not the only taxonomic level. Speciati
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-24 17:13:20
Link to this Comment: 5517

Of course, what I just said about competition being important for the origin of species does not hold for higher levels of taxonomic organization. Genera, families, orders, phyla -- none of these is defined in terms of any kind of biological mechanism like reproduction. It's possible that Paul's noncompetitive-but-directional evolution idea does not hold for evolution at the level of species but does still hold for higher taxonomic levels. That is, species could explore the phenotype space -- branching, bending, lengthening as happy as cracks in the sidewalk -- and never be pruned much.

The great thing about species, though, is that it makes evolution all about discrete events. Branching events either happen or they don't -- and when they happen, they happen at precise moments in time. In fact, natural selection acts as a sort of noise filter immediately after branching events: behaviors that generate hybrids are selected against until species are so separated from each other (reproductively) that they don't even bother trying to interbreed. Noise filter -- exactly what an engineer might think to use to turn some analog signal into its digital representation.

Now, one thing we left off talking about earlier in the year is the relationship (is it a necessary one?) between emergence and discreteness. All our simulations are in discrete time. Our agents are discrete individuals, and their states are defined as sets not functions. If competition is what allows speciation to work, then competition is what makes evolution discrete and might therefore be responsible for emergence.

speciation, death, and competition
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-29 17:22:28
Link to this Comment: 5569

"Isn't competition important in speciation"?

Is very interesting question, worth using to dissect terms and illustrate an argument I'm trying to develop. As Ted says, separated populations may come to be different "simply because of random change". To press the point further, separated populations may come, because of random change, to differ from one another even if the two environments in which they find themselves are identical. And in principle these randomly produced differences could be sufficiently great (or small but specific) so that individuals from each population are literally physically incapable of mating with individuals from the other. Bingo, "speciation" without anything even remotely resembling "competitition" and, for that matter, without any differences in "fitness". The story depends only on randomness and on the (perhaps revolutionary?) idea that different evolutions/emergences may occur under identical environmental conditions.

The story does, interestingly, depend on "death", ie it will yield reproductively isolated species only if the two founding populations of individuals die (otherwise they would provide opportunities for mating after the barrier was removed). And that's important, since it may help to illuminate the general significance of "death" (somewhat along the lies of one or more of Doug's suggestions). At the same time, there is no necessity in this story for death to relate to competitition or even to "differential reproductive success". It would be enough that things die after a fixed amount of time irrespective of their genes.

I trust Ted (and everyone else) recognizes that I am not asserting that this story is "representative" of actual biological evolution. There are lots of reasons to believe it is not. But the game here is to try and abstract some potentially generalizable ideas which in turn could help to account for similarities in global properties between biological evolution and other apparently quite different situations. If there are deep similarities then those similarities (randomness?), rather than idiosyncracies of particular phenomena (competition?), may help to better understand particular situations like biological evolution and be better guides to figuring out how to mimic emergence.

With that objective in mind, let me press the current story a little further in the case of biological evolution. Evolution has in fact created "aptness (apt as in ad-apt-ation)", and this must indeed, as Ted asserts, reflect "differential reproductive success" (assuming we discard the idea of a designer because we are impressed by evidence that differential reproductive success can yield "design", which I am and do). This is NOT, however, the same thing as asserting that is directional in terms of aptness. Indeed, my argument is that evolution is, in an important sense, demonstrably NOT directional in terms of aptness. Bacteria appeared first, but are no less "apt" than humans who appeared much later. Evolution by way of "differential reproductive success" does make "apt" things through local processes of differential gene contribtion to subsequent generations, but there is no strong evidence that things become more apt (or adapted or "fit") on larger scales or over longer time courses (while they DO both become larger and more complex (yes, interesting and productive definition problem) through a left wall effect). What this does is to pose an interesting question: is "differential reproductive success" at small scales and short times essential for particular aspects of the larger scale patterns, including, of most interest, appearance of new levels of organization? I'm not sure yet about the answer, but it is certainly possible that Ted's distinction between what is going on at different taxonomic levels could be pointing toward something quite significant.

At least for the sake of completeness (and perhaps for the general issues as well), let me make one other point in the biological context. "Differential reproductive success" should not be unthoughtfully equated with "competition". By the latter, many people tend to understand a process in which the success of one entity depends on the failure of another. To put it differently, what "competition" brings to many people's minds is the idea of "limited resources" and of a "zero sum game", so that one entity's increased "fitness" necessarily means decreased "fitness" for another. My assertion is that evolution in fact rarely proceeds under conditions of "limited resources" and is not generally best thought of as a "zero sum game". Instead, much of evolution involves cooperative adaptations which themselves increase the total possible payoff and the total available resources. This is important to understand as a counter-balance to "social darwinism" and related more subtle efforts to make use of the evolutionary idea in biology and other contexts. But my hunch is that it is equally important for the general emergence issue. Its my guess that the development of new levels of organization may in fact critically depend on systems NOT operating under limited resource, zero-sum game conditions. The appearance of multi-cellularity, for example, may have been the discovery of a way to increase the use of available "negentropy" rather than of something which could use a fixed amount of negentropy better than that which previously existed.

Yeah, we'll talk about "negentropy" tomorrow, along with information and death, and some of Doug's ideas (which, along with death, are ways of maximizing exploration, which in turn is what the whole thing is about?). Very much enjoyed the shared journey, and looking forward to seeing where we get next.

On fitness and competition
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-04-30 00:46:14
Link to this Comment: 5577

I think I now find myself agreeing with Ted and Paul, even though it may appear that they disagree with each other.

I think the problem is with the words "fitness" and "competition". Here's a story: two brands, er I mean, species of butterflys live in the same neighborhood. Let's say that, because of something having to do with soot and birch trees, the white butterflys get eaten. All of them. It wasn't really any "competition" of some measurable "fitness" quality (faster, stronger, smarter, etc) that led the black butterflys surviving. Rather it was something in the "web of causality" that led to one working better in the total system.

Out on a limb aside: from a scientific point of view, I don't think that we can ever say what "caused" the white butterflys to become extinct. It is too complicated and would involve such an interconnected chain of events that it becomes, in principle, impossible to identify (in a rigorous manner) the exact causation (see above on my ramblings on cause and effect).

However, the above situation is what I take to be meant when I hear the words "fitness" and "competition". The measurable fitness quality is defined exactly as the organisms fitness into the whole. "Survivor of the fittest" is a tautology, and that is exactly what gives it its meaning.

Is there a better word than "competition" that describes this scenario? I can't think of one, but it can bring to mind inappropriate analogies too. Where's George Lakoff when you need him...


Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-30 18:38:12
Link to this Comment: 5587

Thanks again, all, for the morning meandering. Was enjoyable/productive for me and hope there were at least bits and pieces there were useful to others as well.

Yes, we DIDN'T get to "negentropy" nor even really to information. Sorry, but ... there's something interesting about that, in re pedagogy AND in re "emergence". With regard to the first, the issue of process versus content in the classroom is germane. The older I get, the more convinced I become that time spent seriously engaged in process is invariably more productive than time alloted in terms of content. For all concerned. To have "heard" about something is less meaningful than to have genuinely worked through the subtleties of important general concepts (which inevitably takes time). I learn better that way, whatever my classroom role, and don't think I'm at all unique (at least not in that particular respect). Moreover, getting through something one knows about is, as an objective, fundamentally inconsistent with the cardinal principle of "emergent systems": to create the circumstances within which the meaningfully novel can appear. Anne Dalke, Liz McCormack, and I have a manuscript on this, based in part on experiences with the emergent systems group, which some of you have seen and which we'd be delighted to make available to anyone else interested.

Having said all that, I still feel a need to reassure everyone that there WAS an imagined arc behind the conversation, and that it DID not only get through negentropy and information and death but even had at the end a pot of .... something. No sweat. Al and others will undoubtedly pick up some of the as yet unaddressed topics in future sessions, and, for the impatient, there are summaries and links in my notes. As for the pot ... That too is in the notes, but I'll summarize here.

My current hunch, based in part on recent reading of the beginning of Dennett's new Freedom Evolving (warning: the book is nominally about "free will" not about "emergence", and is probably misdirecting on that topic), is that we may actually already have the wherewithal in our hands to create true emergent systems which will generate multiple levels of organization, and this DOES depend, for very interesting subtle and not so subtle reasons, on killing Paul (metaphorically, and not exclusively but repeatedly). What has so far prevented us from doing so (creating emergent systems, not killing Paul) is not that we aren't "smart" enough (the universe was doing it long before "smart" organisms appear on the scene) but that we are in some ways TOO smart.

Thinking is not at all a bad thing. Some of my best friends do it, and I've even been know to engage in it myself on occasion. On the other hand, there are abundant reasons to recognize that thinking, at least in the formal sense, has serious and fundamental limitations (Hume, Kant, Godel, Turing, Popper, Penrose ... among others). In addition, it has some serious occupational hazards, among which one might mention tendencies towards conviction, arrogance, and impatience. Some times problems are better made sense of/solved by thinking less, by letting things flow a bit so that what one could NOT have thought of ... emerges. So maybe we're being too smart to let what could happen in our models happen? Maybe we'd see it given what we already know if we allowed/encouraged ourselves to engage in greater

Need for another Neologism
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-06 12:06:23
Link to this Comment: 5624

Sandy Schram passed on to me the syllabus for the doctoral seminar on Social Theory he'll be teaching this fall. On it I discovered, and read, Max Weber's 1918 speech, "Science As Vocation," which draws on the broodings of Leo Tolstoi to make a very interesting observation about the meaningfulness of death:

"for a civilized person death has no meaning...because...there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress....Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died 'old and satiated with life'...because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve....Whereas civilized man...may become 'tired of life' but not 'satiated with life'....what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence....civilized its very 'progressiveness' death the imprint of meaninglessness."

In other words, death, as we've been using it (to mean erasure that creates space for the emergence of new things) is meaningless (at least to us as individuals). We need another word.

Neologists, to work.

thermodynamic cheating
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-14 15:15:55
Link to this Comment: 5671

This message is really addressed to Tim, but I thought others might enjoy listening in. I was blown away by this morning's discussion; it picked up on lots of things I've been thinking/reading/writing about for the past few years, in a few other working groups, about the nature and function of language, in particular regarding the different sorts of languages valued by scientists and humanists. See The Two Cultures for the initial articulation and the Language Group for a continued discussion of the idea that scientists aim for "no slippage," no "ambiguity," in their professional communications, while humanists not only revel in the play that ambiguity invites, but actually see the function of language as inviting and encouraging that sort of play, the sort of communication that can only happen when the receiver "doesn't quite get" what the sender sent.

What Tim's comments this morning added to these ideas, for me, was incorporating the whole matter of negentropy into what he and I fondly think of as "Derrida's Demon." Tim's very cute/acute questions:

Thinking of interpretation as inevitable (on the evolutionary/emergent model), but also as inevitably generative of death along w/ novelty....
gives me a new way to think about the study and teaching of literature.
Thank you.

Another note (and perhaps an oblique illustration of the above?): before the conversation took this turn, Tim was talking about the evolution of e-lingo, various shorthands used by some to speed up the typing process, and scorned by others (presumably the fast typists!) as impure and/or unnecessary. Tim suggested that these variations in accepted style are in some way a return to the era before printing, when there were multiple ways (and no standard way) of writing words. I was reminded of an account I just read in Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities:

In the "early stage in the history of printing, publishers had not yet fully recognized the advantage and tranforming power of moveable type...[an early printed book] still uses cryptic and extensive abbreviations for many words, converting the entire text into a form of shorthand. These conventional abbreviations had greatly boosted the speed of production for texts, when each copy had to be written out by hand, but saved little time, and perhaps a little more space--but only at the cost of great ambiguity and difficulty in reading--when the type for each word only needed to be set once. Thus these abbreviations slowly faded from use, leading to our modern conventions of writing texts in full..." (127n.)

Such varieties of notation of course invite/insist on...
careful--and/but always uncertain--interpretation.

Better go get something to eat. Need to add energy in the system.

The Hunt
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-15 11:25:47
Link to this Comment: 5677

Hm...I seem to be the only one w/ "energy" (=information) this morning. But, still chewing over yesterday's conversation, wanted to say a bit more...

Also quite resonant for me was Deepak's charge that we'd arrived, @ the very end of our session, at a contradiction: claiming BOTH that the generation of novelty "is the point" of emergent systems AND that the move (of the universe, of evolution, of exploration, of emergence) is always from improbable to more probable can both those claims be true?

Since I find answers to abstract questions through concrete examples, I offer one here to the group. It's a gift to us from my friend Andrea Friedman (McBride 01), and evokes BOTH our delighted constructions of neologisms AND a process Doug described to us on 2/26/03:

"This guess-and-step methodology is actually called hill climbing due to the following metaphor. Start at a random place on a hill. Pick a direction to step. If the place you would step to is higher than where you are, make the step, otherwise stay where you are. This little algorithm will eventually take you to the top of the hill. However, it might might not take you to the highest place around because you could get trapped on a little plateau (i.e., you would have to step to a lower place before stepping to even higher ground)."

And here's Doug's hill-climbing, and ALL our neologizing, in poetic form:

The Hunt

Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm country
that lie beyond speech
Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
across the landscape tracking down a new word.

It is a small noun about the size of a mouse,
one that will be seldom used by anyone,
like a synonym for 'isthmus',
but they are pursuing the creature zealously

as if it were the verb 'to be',
swinging their sticks and calling out to one another
as they wade through a field of waist-high barley.

- Billy Collins

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-29 08:22:54
Link to this Comment: 5734

Kim Cassidy, Doug and I are co-directing a Summer Institute for Philadelphia Teachers: "Exploration and Emergence." When we met yesterday afternoon to continue our planning, Doug was puzzling about how "emergence" could work as a guiding principle for pedagogy. For me, that has been the clearest and most exciting application of the ideas we've been discussing, and "emergence" has become my newest shorthand for most of the progressive pedagogical strategies I employ: local hands-on interactions that produce unanticipated outcomes by validating multiple ways of knowing and thinking, and the relationships and interdependencies among the people doing the thinking.

I gave, as evidence of this process, what happened in our Emergence Group meeting yesterday morning : Paul came in w/ a series of (elaborately backed-up) propositions about the need for information loss and death, in order for new levels of complexity to emerge. By the end of a long hour's interaction among us all, w/ several of us providing the punch lines along the way, we arrived together @ several very different claims: that information, like energy, is not actually lost, but instead transformed, as it "moves up to another level," forming a category, an abstraction. This is not death, but resurrection after all!

While I'm reveling in this illumination, I'll take the opportunity to say that I'd like us to talk more about Rob's suggestion, just @ the end of our discussion, that Paul's "input-output" boxes are too static in their representation of how the nervous system works: it's an active "information-grabbing" device, and what it chooses to attend to is very important. I'd like to think about this matter of active attention.

interacting brains
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-05-29 11:03:33
Link to this Comment: 5735

I've spent a lot of my life walking tightropes, and have I think NEVER had an experience like that of the last few weeks. I'm used to people standing around watching/hoping for/trying to create a fall. Its an extraordinary feeling to have company up there, with everyone doing the best they can to keep us on the wire together. Thanks all.

A few afterthoughts. Rob is of course right in his assertion that I neglected two central aspects of what makes the brain an emergent system (in some ways even more paradigmatic than biological evolution, or at least more rapid). Both are in my notes (an autonomous, to some degree "random", generation of signals, and the output centered conception of the box which, with it, gives the nervous system a fundamentally exploratory character; the nervous system as Rob's "information grabber (see my earlier struggle to reach this conclusion). Both make the system in its function even more "irreversible", and hence history-dependent. In my brain/mind, we'd been over this stuff in connection with evolution and so, in presentation, I guess I let myself get preoccupied with the "new" point (the irreversibility at multiple levels which is both information "slippage"/loss and creation). But, its misleading to identify emergence in the brain ONLY with the latter. The ability of the nervous system to generate outputs independent of input, and to use the "reafferent loop" to test "expectations" are equally important in thinking of the brain as a paradigmatic emergent system. Similarly, Rob is right that the time parameter needs to be included (though I have some doubts, for other reasons, about the efficacy/significance of "contingency"; see Time talk and William James). I had the time embedded in the "irreversible" concept but should have made it more explicit.

Also re Rob: my GUESS is that "reflective consciousness" is in fact necessary for "consciousness", but that's a much longer conversation and the notion that there is information loss/gain in going from the unconscious to consciousness holds however it comes out. As for the idea that "attention"/"expectation" is an important emergent, not present in neurons, I need to think more about that one. Not EVERYTHING has to be found at the lowest level, as Mark noted, but as Karl Lashley wrote in 1951 "I am coming more and more to the conviction that the rudiments of every behavioral mechanism will be found far down in the evolutionary scale and also represented even in primitive activities of the nervous system". There is an interesting way in which the neuron might (like the nervous system itself) be seen as a device which generates output in a continuing effort to stablize its own state (the "expectation") in the face of input.

Back to the main theme (as it "emerged" in the talk): the idea that each level of organization "categorizes" the previous and so both gains/loses information (thanks again to Geoff and his leaky integrator question for triggering my thoughts along these lines). My intuition is that this is in fact an important piece of the "level of organization problem" (with the parallel in biological evolution/ecology being the appearance of new "niches" which in turn support new adaptive radiation? in developmental biology events like the early establishment of bilateral symmetry which in turn permit ... ? in social/cultural evolution new ideas/artifacts such as "christianity", "democracy", "communism"?).

If all this is anywhere near the right track, Doug (and Deepak) posed two important issues: is threshholding (and associated information "loss") essential for emergence? and are there particular "categories" which support further emergence or is that a general consequence of "categorization" irrespective of the particular categories created? My intuition is that there answer to the first question is "yes", that "edginess" (the category boundaries) is essential so that elements which simply record information are either very slow in creating new levels of organization or fail to do it entirely. My intuition is less strong for the second question. I THINK what happens, given enough time, is a kind of natural selection, that any category creating system will generate multiple levels but that it probably does so by exploring and allowing to "die" less generative categories.

And that, of course, brings us to the "death" and "information loss" questions (Anne, Tim). The information loss/creation link that we all noted sort of clarified and become stronger in my mind during the conversation. And I don't know at the moment exactly how to "concretize" it. There clearly IS in some sense information gain in the creation of categories, but I'm less sure that there is an existing form of information theory that would allow one to quantify and compare information loss and gain in, for example, edge detection (though I know some places worth checking). My intuition (again) is that it would turn out that in this case (and all others) that a modified form of the second law of thermodynamics continues to hold, ie that one is dealing with information "transformation" (rather than loss/gain), and that there is a necessary small information/free energy loss in all such transformations. I think working this out more formally might be generally productive, and hope Al's upcoming might help us with this. In any case, the point is indeed that "information" is "organized matter" and therefore as subject to the second law as any other matter/energy.

Viewed more generally (metaphorically?), "death" is not the same thing as "loss", in any system that has stigmergy. To put this less more ... poetically? .... entities in evolving/emerging systems continue to exist after individual "death" by virtue of their remaining influences/traces on other entities. I hesitate to call this "resurrection" (Anne's term), but do think we tend, in a very of contexts, to think too "essentially" ... and need to recognize that in evolving/emergent systems the meaning of entities is actually in their impact on other entities and these impacts can be quite extensive in time.

A final (for the moment) general point. Categorization=interpretation=abstraction, and there is LOTS of it going on UNconsciously.

interacting SOULS
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-29 22:10:26
Link to this Comment: 5736

Viewed more generally (metaphorically?), "death" is not the same thing as "loss", in any system that has stigmergy. To put this less more ... poetically? .... entities in evolving/emerging systems continue to exist after individual "death" by virtue of their remaining influences/traces on other entities. I hesitate to call this "resurrection" (Anne's term), but do think we tend, in a very of contexts, to think too "essentially" ... and need to recognize that in evolving/emergent systems the meaning of entities is actually in their impact on other entities and these impacts can be quite extensive in time.

Well, if we're going to be "poetic"...then let's not yet lay down "resurrection"--which refers to the act of rising from the dead or returning to life IN A DIFFERENT FORM (hence, "the resurrection body," the form in which we "will all" appear at the general resurrection--presumably not the one we now occupy, presumably something more "generalized," more "abstract" than our present particular concrete state).

Well, if we're going to be "poetic," then let's BE poetic. Here's a poet who observed in 1635 that death was NOT loss, that the "meaning" of (at least) one entity was indeed her "impact" on another (himself!):

by John Donne

    SHE's dead ; and all which die
        To their first elements resolve ;
And we were mutual elements to us,
        And made of one another.
    My body then doth hers involve,
And those things whereof I consist hereby
In me abundant grow, and burdenous,
        And nourish not, but smother.
    My fire of passion, sighs of air,
Water of tears, and earthly sad despair,
            Which my materials be,
But near worn out by love's security,
She, to my loss, doth by her death repair.
And I might live long wretched so,
But that my fire doth with my fuel grow.
        Now, as those active kings
    Whose foreign conquest treasure brings,
Receive more, and spend more, and soonest break,
This —which I am amazed that I can speak—
        This death, hath with my store
            My use increased.
And so my soul, more earnestly released,
Will outstrip hers ; as bullets flown before
A latter bullet may o'ertake, the powder being more.

If this sort of thing interests you @ all, you can read more @ The Works of John Donne, where you will find not only a poem entitled "Resurrection," and another called "Resurrection, Imperfect," but a sequence of twenty-three meditations, published in 1624, entitled Devotions on Emergent Occasions (?!).

Am thinking of penning a 21st version myself. Stay tuned.

Neuron's Information Loss
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-05-30 00:46:51
Link to this Comment: 5737

I'm going to grab part of what Rob said to go in a different direction, trying to wrestle with Paul's claims of information loss, but maybe coming back to Rob's point.

Rob said, in part: "the non-linear thresholding of the neuron forces it to act like a gate which is either open or closed...information is either passed along or it is not."

Do we really mean that "information" is not passed on if the classifier doesn't fire? If we think of the neuron as a circuit gate, then the analogy would be that not firing is the same as outputing a 0 (rather than a 1). It is exactly this fact that sometimes the neuron fires and sometimes it doesn't that gives the firing its "meaning" and therefore makes both (firing and not firing) information.

So what is the litmus test to see if something is information? In information theory, the message is independent of the medium and would be a crazy thing to ask. It would be a confusion of levels. We create a message that we want to send via a channel, and as an outside observer, we can see the effects of noise on the signal. But when the message originates in and really *is* the medium, I don't think there is a method that would allow us to say that one thing is information and something else is noise.

We can easily see a single neuron as an information processing device because we can isolate the inputs and outputs, and see the firing of the neuron as a non-linear threshold function. But, we have a harder time doing that with an entire nervous system. When a system is sufficient complex enough that it can bend around and poke itself when it wants, then you can longer cleanly separate inputs from outputs. I am starting to think that information theory may not be the right way to think about active devices (rather than the passive in/out neuron devices).

In any event, neurons don't lose information, they concentrate it. They take a large number of inputs and summarize/generalize them. Given the appropriate organization of these categorizers, and a system can exhibit interesting behavior. But even if the neural system didn't do anything interesting, I think we have to say that it was processing the same amount of information.

Looking forward to Al's talk next week...


down a level/up a level
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-30 18:15:15
Link to this Comment: 5739

Since it's clear that no one's willing (yet) to move UP several levels to talk about death, resurrection and the meaning of life...

I'm coming down to where you guys are playing. Doug said,

"In any event, neurons don't lose information, they concentrate it. They take a large number of inputs and summarize/generalize them. . . . even if the neural system didn't do anything interesting, I think we have to say that it was processing the same amount of information. "

I thought the point here was that, when information is compressed, some of it is lost, and lost irrecoverably; this is why we say emergence is one-directional, not reversible. When we were toying w/ some of these ideas in the Graduate Idea Forum this afternoon (yes, they are getting around....), Sam Glazier summed them up quite nicely by writing on the board


If you are given only the left-hand side of the equation, you can easily produce the information needed on the right. But if you have only the right-hand side, there are multiple possible configurations (12; or 24-12; or 1+2+3+4+3...) for the left; there's no reconstructing, no knowing from the sum alone, what the original equation looked like.

Moving up "a level" (yes, indeed--despite the best of intentions/the most open of minds, I have the humanist's prejudice against the essentializing, reductionist moves I see going on all 'round me....)--I wonder if we might return *sometime* to Rob's observations about the need for a distinction between self-consciousness and consciousness. I am in analysis now, and I had thought (til he made that observation) that the project was one of becoming more self-aware, of watching myself, my emotions as they arise, and thereby becoming less vulnerable to their movement, able to modulate them. But last night, as my daughter was talking about how self-conscious she is about her upcoming recital, her piano teacher suggested she aim for a "zen state." Might this be what Rob means by "awareness"? Marian might "try" (trick is, you can't "try") to be not self-aware, not self-conscious (not nervous!) but simply there, aware, conscious, @ ease w/ who she is, what she is doing....and might this also be a good outcome of analysis: to get beyond self-consciousness, to loop back to a kind of consciousness that is not self-aware/self-reflective? (To risk another poetic gesture: I find myself thinking here of Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience": a state of unconsciousness, then a "fall" into consciousness, then an emergence into a higher state of innocence...)

Hm. Wonder how long it will be til the Emergent Group is ready to move on "up" to these sorts of questions...??


In the fullness of time
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-04 14:02:13
Link to this Comment: 5744

I've been chewing on a number of the ideas that came up in this morning's conversation. I record them here, as a reminder to myself to continue thinking about them, and/or as an invitation to anyone else (in Al's teasing & resonant phrase, "in the fullness of time") to address/clarify ....

--the emergence of local complexity requires the 2nd law, but the 2nd law does not require (nor does it forbid) emergence (i.e.: the claim itself is not reversible);

--a single particle has no temperature and no entropy: is this simply definitional (that is, temperature/entropy are comparative states, quantifications/measurements located only in contrast?) or is it more "foundational" (i.e.: entropy, like emergence, arises only among particles/things in relationship w/ one another?)

--is this dependence on interactions related in any way to the observation that the message was in the "sequence," not in the "information" (the dots and dashes) of two lines of Morse code, one conveying a message, one scrambled, but both having the same entropy?

--"all interesting information processing has irreversibility": is this also just definitional (=circular), i.e.: what interests us is what we didn't know before? which is to say, everything that interests us is distinguished by its ability to surprise us?

--but that makes improbability (once again) simply observer-dependent, the result of our limitations as perceivers of knowledge;

--the scientists among us have been using the term "irreversible" to mean "not completely recuperable"; when we suggested that 2+5=7 could be thought of as "reversible," I think Tim and I were groping toward a less "technical" usage (that is, from just having access to the right-hand side of the equation, you can build back up the left; it may well not be the equation you started w/, but it actually is one of a fairly small sub-set of possibilities, and--depending on context--may serve just as "well" as the original);

--the query whether Shannon's theorem is "just a metaphor": if physics (like literature, like economics, like all disciplines) makes models of the world; if models are never "the same thing" as what they model, but always representations, or reductions, or metaphors; and if all model/representations/reductions/metaphors have their limits, the correspondence (and its predictive quality) will always be incomplete, will inevitably fail...


Notes on the history of reversible computation
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-06-05 01:19:58
Link to this Comment: 5745

I'm trying to locate the exact note that I saw earlier this year regarding the building of a reversible computer. I haven't found it yet, but I think the fellow is C. H. Bennett of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Here is a report titled "Notes on the history of reversible computation" that looks appropriate:

A Very Long Link

If that URL doesn't work try and click on the Landauer link, or just google the title of the paper.

From what I have surmised, computation (say a Turing Machine) can be implemented by reversible classic billiard ball-style physics. Building actual circuits that are reversible (or nearly reversible) creates computers that use less energy and generate less heat, because it is the erasure of information that requires it.

One might think that evolution would also build "computers" that use less energy. However, as Mark pointed out, there may be a trade-off between space (ie, the wiring to keep the info around) and expending the energy to erase it.

In that light, stigmergy is neither: an agent doesn't keep the information, and it doesn't get destroyed. It just gets left laying around.


the centrality (for the moment, in my mind) of irr
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-06-09 22:04:06
Link to this Comment: 5746

Many, many thanks to Al for a presentation that made some issues much clearer (I think) to me. Some notes, for myself and anyone else for whom they might be useful.

1 - I have, for the first time, clearly understood the limitations of Boltzmann's effort to make sense of the Second Law in terms of Newtonian physics (reversible), coupled with probability. I'm still a little murky on the history here (Loschmidt vs Poincare) but have very much on my mind Poincare's assertion (his "recurrence theorem"?) that Boltzmann may have accounted for a probabilistic trend but failed to account for "irreversibility".

2 - Its my hunch/intuition that this was/is a serious issue, one that has taken physics/information theory off on an inappropriate side-branch. My inclination is to try and back up to that branch point, and see if some existing problems can be avoided, and some open issues settled, by taking a different path ("two paths diverged in a yellow wood / and sorry I could not travel both ...").

3 - I THINK that "irreversible" is well-defined in information terms, if less well so in mechanics/physics. Sam Glazier's arithmetic equation (see Dalke above) is a pardigmatic example. In fact ALL of the basic arithmetic operators are "irreversible" functions in the sense that once they have operated it is not in general possible to recover exactly from the resultant the original terms (yes, they are limited but more often than not to an infinite set of possibilities, what I called many moons ago a "bounded variant" set; there are "traces" of the original terms but the one to one correspondence of inputs and outputs has been lost; the operator, as George Weaver puts it, is a function in the forward but not in the backwards direction). This is in general true of logical operators as well. And it is the sense of "irreversible" that I was referring to earlier when I talked about "information loss" associated with threshholding elements and behaviors in the nervous system. Most generally (perhaps?), irreversibility is a property of most transformations from higher dimensional to lower dimensional spaces (a line in 3D space collapses to a point in 2D space). While the Poincare argument persuades me that there is no necessary "information loss" in Boltzmann's reversible probabilistic system, I'm comfortable (I think) that there IS a real/inevitable "information loss" in the situations mentioned. And that "information" in these terms can at least in principle be defined in an "observer independent" fashion.

4 - The challenge then is (perhaps) to skip over Boltzmann/etc and try and define "information" with regard to the loss occuring in clear "irreversible" processes, and perhaps THEN go back and use that to see whether it can provide a clearer definition of both the second law of thermodynamics AND its resistance to Maxwell's Demon type phenomena. My guess is one would come out with the same linkage between "information" and "matter/energy", but have a clearer characterization of the nature of that relation.

I'm still dubious about fully reversible calculation (for reasons inherent in the above), but have yet to check the reference (or look for additional ones). Doug's C.H. Bennett is the same Bennett who, with Rolf Landauer, established the notion of "erasure" as the key constraint on Maxwell's Demon. Bennett, by the by, has an article on "Chain Letters and Evolutionary Histories" (perhaps relevant for Panama's upcoming presentatio) in the June Scientific American.

Some worthwhile links:

How Molecules Defy the Demon ... Review by Rolf Landauer of Maxwell's Demon by Hans Christian von Bayer, 1998 ... reviews history, including role of Charles Bennett and "algorithmic entropy", mentions earlier "authoritative" volume, Maxwell's Demon edited by Less, HF and Rex, F. (1990).

Mechanics and Irreversibility, a discussion including reference to Josef Loschmidt and his objection to Boltzmann's analysis

Henri Poincare, The Principles of Mathematical Physicsz, 1905

Notes on the History of Reversible Computation, C.H. Bennett, 1988

Trespassing Limits: Pynchon's Irony and the Law of the Excluded Middle ... The novelist Thomas Pynchon on entropy

Two Paths
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-10 09:18:15
Link to this Comment: 5747

What amuses me hugely here is that Paul's posting about the centrality of irreversibility centrally involves the action of backtracking (I have a hunch that I'm operating on a totally different level here, but this seems a pretty clear demonstration of reversibility). I've just finished an intense week of immersion in Doug's "Bible," Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (so, arriving twenty years late, some of us are still open to revelation...) Among 1,000 other things, I have learned about the problem-reduction operations built into the AI language PLANNER: particularly the recursive process that's enabled by creating a tree of subgoals, subsubgoals, etc. If one path in the tree fails to achieve the desired goal, then the PLANNER program will backtrack and try another route. "Backtracking" seems to be the magic word as far as Planner is concerned...and, I've been convinced by Hofstadter, as far as emergence is concerned as well. So (@ whatever level) I'm revising Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken": It IS very much possible to "be one traveler" and take two paths, to jump outside the system, entertain the counterfactual, get the perspective of an overview, then "loop" back into it w/ an awareness of the "slippability" and alterability of the various nested contexts which define it....

emergence and intentionality
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-11 17:17:53
Link to this Comment: 5748

I regretted having to leave Jim's presentation this morning, just as he was quoting Stephen Lansing's observation that "whereas in biology 'natural ecosystems evolve through a process of "blind" natural selection...[in anthropology] systems...are by definition shaped by conscious human intentions'"

--because this is precisely where the discussion gets puzzling (and so interesting) for me: what happens to/how useful is/how extended can the concept of emergence be, for describing the interaction (and evolution of action) among agents who are conscious: not ants, not termites, but thoughtful human beings? 

re: emergence and intentionality
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-06-12 00:46:59
Link to this Comment: 5750

I hope that the distinction that Jim brought up this morning and that Anne has highlighted (emergence and/or intentionality) can be explored more fully next week when I lead a discussion on Emergence and Intelligence.

Here's a conjecture I'll throw out now and hope to defend next week: the more intelligent an agent is, the less likely it will be part of an emergent system. Or, said another way: the more "intentionality" an agent has, the smaller the effect it will have on higher level emergent systems.

(Although, I don't use the word intentionality as it seems to be beyond the reach of science.)


V in the sky
Name: Al Albano
Date: 2003-06-12 08:49:43
Link to this Comment: 5751

Re Doug's comment that the V in the sky formed by flying geese may just be a pattern we observe, aren't there aerodynamic consequences of the pattern? Don't the trailing geese get some slipstream effects causing the lead goose to expend more energy than trailing geese, so that when the lead goose gets tired, it falls back letting a "fresher" goose take the lead. One consequence of all this may be a more efficient use of the group's energy.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-12 10:01:03
Link to this Comment: 5752

My son Sam graduates from high school tonight. Searching for something meaningful to give him, prodded in part by our earlier conversation about "being one traveler" and having to chose between alternative paths (or not), I decided on Robert Frost, in particular his poem "Design'":

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Which is to say, Doug, I very much want us to get to emergence, intelligence AND intentionality next week, and to think together--"scientifically" or not--about the relationship between the two latter terms, in the context of the former--

Tripping points along the way to emergent irrigati
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-06-12 11:11:41
Link to this Comment: 5753

Thanks, Jim! Yesterday's discussion was fascinating, and it's exciting to see how some of our more abstract ideas play out in different settings.

I still have two concerns about Lansing and Kremer's claim to have demonstrated that the organization of traditional Balinese irrigation decisions is emergent. My first concern is the same one I brought up yesterday: if there's no tradeoff between subak-level payoff (for choosing one or another irrigation schedule), and if there's no competition for resources among neighboring subaks, then there's no reason to think that the resulting distribution of irrigation strategies reflects anything other than the distribution of what's optimal given local environmental conditions.

Have you ever seen those "Pin Art" toys they used to sell in executive-toy catalogues? (Here's a picture. Another. Here's a yellow one.) You press it against your hand or face or against some other object with an interesting shape. As some of the pins are pushed up higher than others, the toy reproduces the contours of the object and you get an accurate (but imprecise) reproduction of the object's shape. The accuracy of the reproduction does not emerge, though, from anything like among-pin dynamics or anything else interesting. Each pin gets its correct final position directly from the object. The object is completely responsible for the shape of the reproduction -- the toy contributes nothing. The toy processes or transforms no information. I guess all it does is lose information.

That's what might be happening with the irrigation decisions. Each subak is like a pin, and its final irrigation schedule is like the pin's final position. If a subak chooses its best irrigation schedule for its local environment, then the final pattern of schedules is just a point-for-point reproduction of the pattern of environmental conditions. That itself wouldn't really be emergence, any more than eery hands and faces appearing in Pin Art is emergence.

That's my first concern -- here's my second. In the simulation, each subak chose its next irrigation schedule on the basis of neighbors' schedules and resultant yields. But which subaks counted as neighbors? It's possible that the final clustering of irrigation strategies simply results from who counts as whose neighbor. If it turns out that the final clusters with like schedules are also the clusters of subaks that counted as each others' neighbors, then the final result was sort of built into the model at the start.

But if both of these problems turn out to be true, it's still a very intereting study, even in terms of emergence. It's at least as interesting as other searches of solution spaces, like in my plant-allocation searches or like in biological evolution.

Camazine article/book
Name: Panama Gee
Date: 2003-06-12 11:33:59
Link to this Comment: 5754


I just came across this article by Scott Camazine in Natural History Magazine called "Patterns in Nature". You can read the article at, . It summarizes some things that we have talked about over the past several months.

Also, Camazine is a co-author of "Self-Organization in Biological Systems", Princeton University Press (2001), which provides numerous case studies of biological self-organization. The link, , has more information.


Balinese Water Management
Name: Jim
Date: 2003-06-13 08:56:47
Link to this Comment: 5755

Friends, I decided to do something simple, which I should have done in the first place--go find Stephen Lansing's home page. Here it is homepage. It will lead you to his Balinese study page where he has posted his co-authored article (with Kremer and Smuts) System-dependent selection, ecological feedback and the emergence of functional structure in ecosystems.

It's abstract states:
"Most models of natural selection assume either that the material environment remains constant or that it fluctuates in ways unrelated to changes in gene frequencies (and therefore changes in the distribution of phenotypes) of the organism undergoing selection. In this paper, we consider what happens when this assumption does not hold, that is, when ecological feedback between organism and environment is included in the evolutionary process. Specifically, we examine the unusual evolutionary dynamics that occur when changes in the distribution of phenotypes (resulting from selection) alter an environmental parameter in ways that, in turn, modify selection pressures. This process, which we term "system-dependent selection," produces stable phenotypic diversity which functions to regulate the relevant environmental parameter within a much narrower range than would occur in the absence of ecological feedback. This environmental regulation raises the mean fitness of the population and reduces variance in fitness among different phenotypes. Thus, system-dependent selection produces functional organization at the level of the system as a whole, rather than at the level of the individual organism. We use James Lovelock's model of the imaginary planet Daisyworld to describe the unusual dynamics of this selective process and then use a similar model to examine the structure of an ancient system of wet-rice farming on the Indonesian island of Bali. This model accurately predicts the actual structure of functional organization along two Balinese rivers. We investigate the stability of such systems by exploring the conditions under which mutant phenotypes can invade Daisyworld. The results suggest that the phenotypic diversity and functional organization produced by system-dependent selection may be maintained when there exists variation, over evolutionary time, in the environmental parameters underlying system-dependent dynamics."

For those of you with Macs, Lansing has posted his download simulation modelMacintosh only
He also has another study available on the Skokomish River.

I'm preoccupied with bringing an edited volume to press and have not had time to read through this thoroughly but will do so in August, when I return from Greece. Jim

two different branches...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-15 22:35:46
Link to this Comment: 5757

I spent this weekend talking with (among other people) my brother-in-law, Pete Dalke, who works for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). He was explaining to me how much of his work now acknowledges that traditional top-down governance systems can't respond to the challenges of sustainability; in their stead, all sorts of local decision-making structures are being established (see, for instance, Governance for Sustainability).

The totally different path towards emergence I found myself wandering down this weekend showed up in the 6/15/03 NYTimes Magazine article, "My son, the Cyborg":

"Rodney Brooks, the head of the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab, told NPR recently that while we could make a robot play chess, we were still flummoxed by the challenge of creating one that, like a human 2-year-old, could come into a place they've never seen and point to things and say 'chair,' 'cup,' 'table.' But the related dream of making humans a little more like cyborgs seems closer to reality ....Experiments w/ 'bionic technology,' like brain implants that can restore vision to the blind or mobility to the paralyzed, are now proceeding with human subjects....Superthumbs and Robocop-like visiual scanning could be regarded as virtual implants, incorporating machine intelligence into human bodies without surgery...."

emergence and intelligence
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-06-17 17:53:47
Link to this Comment: 5759

Looking forward to Doug's discussion tomorrow, and backwards to Jim's last week which helped frame it ...

My guess, for the sake of the record, is that both Anne's hope and Doug's conjecture reflect an understandable but not to be satisfied hope that "intelligent beings" (ie humans) are somehow qualitatively ifferent from ants and termites in their relation to "emergent" phenomena. "Thoughtfulness" (I agree with Doug that "intentionality" is confusing term, best avoided, because it can exist without "thoughtfulness") is an attractive, real, and ocassionally significant aspect of human nervous system function, but it is notorious for overestimating its own significance. One example of this is the general failure of "urban planning" efforts to achieve self-sustaining urban communities. Conversely, there are the examples of existing cities (and water networks) that are self-sustaining and that "emerged" in the absence of "thoughtfulness". It seems to me that to the extent that anthropologists actually believe that their objects of study "are by definition shaped by conscious human intentions" they are likely to be missing very much the largest part of the boat (and its explanation). For the moment, the most significant implication of emergent systems research is, it seems to me, how LITTLE of human activity depends on "thoughtfulness". Maybe once we get that straight, we can use it as a framework to help identify and study the much small part that does reflect thoughtfulness.

Along this line, another thought prompted by Jim's talk has to do with what I think is an important "assymetry" in thinking about levels of organization in emergent system (see Grad Idea Forum). One could in principle "explain" phenomena by moving either up or down among levels. BUT trying to account for lower levels in terms of upper ones can get one into serious trouble if the historical reality is (as it appears to be) that upper levels emerged from lower ones. There is always a conceivable upper level explanation for lower level properties (the god's eye view); if the systems are realy history dependent, the constraints on stories are better working from the lower to the upper levels (ie from neurobiology to anthropology rather than from politics or economics to anthropology).

Let me also beat a dead horse a little more. What is going on in the water distribution example is making the pie bigger; it is NOT competition in the zero sum game sense. And it is NOT "optimization" in any useful (ie small numbers of variables) sense. It is simply "exploring", with improvement as an outcome rather than a guide or objective. Indeed, when one ATTEMPTS to optimize in terms of some well defined variable or set of them one frequently ends up disturbing a previously well-functioning system (because it reflects a balance among lots and lots of variables).

Last thought, related to upcoming discussion of network architectures. Figure 6 of Jim's presentation distinguishes networks with different information flow patterns in a way that may be quite generally relevant/significant.

Beads on a String
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-18 17:56:45
Link to this Comment: 5760

I'm misquoted and misunderstood above: am NOT invested in nor especially hoping that humans will turn out to be different from/better than ants and termites in our relation to emergent phenomena. I'm just trying "manfully" to UNDERSTAND HOW our being "thoughtful" agents works into/contributes to/interferes with the process of emergence (the notion that our faculty meetings are generally such miserable failures because too many thoughtful people are trying to control the "upper level" of the discussion is a marvelous case in point here!)

Anyhow, our conversations around Doug's presentation this morning helped me a lot in this thinking--and I want to lay out one of these strands. The first "bead on the string" is Jan's mention of "theory of mind," which was very resonant for me. It links directly to the second bead: in preparation for the upcoming Summer Institute on Exploration and Emergence, I've just finished re-reading Steve Johnson's Emergence, which postulates that our awareness of our own minds thinking is the result of our awareness of other minds doing so. The third bead is the insight provided by Turing's Imitation Game--whether he himself intended/was aware of it or not-- that we can determine a system's intelligence by asking it questions: that is, by INTERACTING w/ it using language. In other words, intelligence might be defined as a property identified by OTHER human beings in interaction w/ the "creature whose" intelligence is in question. As Paul suggested this morning, this notion links very nicely w/ the fourth "bead," the idea developed by Mikhail Bahktin in The Dialogic Imagination that language is always a dialogue, always social, always a struggle between a speaker and a listener.

Bingo. End of string: my current "definition" of intelligence is "the ability to imagine the mind of another...the ability to imagine that the mind of another is DIFFFERENT from one's own...." What's key here is NOT rationality but rather IMAGINATIVE INTERACTION.

Relationally yours

P.S. I've just noticed another "string"--which leads to a "correction" of Doug's observation that AI researchers find the Turing test a terrible method of judging intelligence because, among other things, "it leaves the self open for tricks." Doug also just lent me another book by Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot: The Spark and Sparkle of Creative Translation, which is a profound reflection on the non-formulaic, fantasy-filled, always-tentative mental exploration underlying translation, which Hofstadter presents as paradigmatic for what it means to be human and alive. It is as remote from a computational approach as one can get --and it is full of tricks.

Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-06-18 22:59:54
Link to this Comment: 5761

Above, Anne concluded:

my current "definition" of intelligence is "the ability to imagine the mind of another...the ability to imagine that the mind of another is DIFFFERENT from one's own...." What's key here is NOT rationality but rather IMAGINATIVE INTERACTION. I didn't get to show my own definition of intelligence this morning, but it is very similar to Anne's intuition. I just tried to turn "ability to imagine" into a more concrete, scientific idea. Here it is:

intelligence - a measure of the complexity of the concepts one must invoke in order to sufficiently explain the behavior of a system in a given context. (In my version you can gauge your own intelligence.) What is interesting about both of these (and Turning's) is that intelligence is in the eye of the beholder. That doesn't bother me, but there may be those that are still looking for a concept like "energy" or "work". But I am skeptical about that possibility because intelligence depends on the "end state" and the context---both of which need to be perceived.

Thanks to all for listening to my personal odyssey to EI! All feedback welcomed!


Doug's Impossibility Theorems
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-06-19 13:17:14
Link to this Comment: 5762

Doug's conjectures yesterday were some of the most interesting things that we have seen this past semester. While I would not say that they are wrong, I do believe that at this point in time, they are inherently unknowable. By this I mean that from what I can glean from our discussion group, we don't know enough to have any idea as to whether they are true (maybe that is what "conjecture" means, but I think the term usually implies a substantial likelihood of truth, which in my view is missing here).

There is a nice symmetry to Doug's position. Intelligence/rationality involves the sending of signals that you yourself understand, and by symmetry such an entity can comprehend and evaluate the signals of others (passing the Turing Test). But once an entity (understood as a level of emergence) becomes that self-aware, there are Two Impossibility Theorems:

1) No further levels of emergence can occur because the entities are now little Einsteins who are unfit as components for developing more complex systems.
2) It is impossible to understand, in the standard way, an entity this complex.

So self-awareness implies a level of development/complexity that prohibit's complete understanding of oneself.

This is cute, but is it true.

Impossibility Theorem 1) seems a lot like the "end of human evolution" view: that is, that humans by being able to manipulate their environment are able to prevent further human evolution from occurring. I don't know how true this is for human evolution (though I doubt it), but I don't see any good argument why the little Einsteins can't be merged into more complex systems. Impossibility Theorem 1) is, in a sense, contradicted by the existence of human society.

Impossibility Theorem 2) not only implies the impossibility of cognitive science (as one of Doug's critics said), but also social science (and I fully grant that social science does not deserve its name). My main point here is that it is way, way too early to throw in the towel on creating models that can adequately explain complex processes. All models are abstractions from reality, so they always do not fully represent the underlying processes. The great successes in intellectual history are precisely those models which somehow successfully explain things without merely replaying the things themselves. Finding the right set of abstractions and pushing through to their implications is what creativity in theory is all about. I see no inherent reason why this process cannot continue.

Theory of Mind
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-06-19 15:35:04
Link to this Comment: 5763

At Anne's urging, I've posted some links on Theory of Mind, about which I learned through reading accounts of autism, which has long fascinated me.
Additional musings: some instinctual behavior in animals is "hard wired," but animals also learn through stimulus conditioning and can generalize from previously learned information. I do think animals have basic emotions, and those of us who like animals can see that they clearly are able to "relate" to people and to one another. Some scientists argue that true "thinking" must include the ability to generalize. Others maintain that language is essential for thinking.
In addition to being unable to understand the way other people think and feel, many autistics, including those who are savants, cannot generalize. They think "like computers." They are human. They are often very intelligent. But is their intelligence human? Then again, some have argued that Einstein and Wittgenstein, for example, showed autistic traits. ... and where does that take us...
(Lest my exclamation about armpits seem a little autistic itself -- occurred to me that perspiring is a more complex system than the steam governor -- it not only cools down the body, but can be triggered by anxiety and occurs, often "unpredictably," in response to hormones, in turn generating anxiety. But after I thought about it a few more minutes, I saw that it's not an emergent system. (And, the example isn't even analogous since perspiration doesn't power the body.)

Theory of Mind
The branch of cognitive science that concerns our understanding of the minds of ourselves and others has come to be called "theory of mind," though it should perhaps be called "theory of theory of mind."

(Sorry, long. Thought this was a helpful summary, but the URL doesn't seem to be working now.
.... A "Theory of Mind" (often abbreviated in TOM) is a specific cognitive ability to understand others as intentional agents, that is, to interpret their minds in terms of theoretical concepts of intentional states such as beliefs and desires. It has been commonplace in philosophy (see Davidson 1984; Dennett 1987) to see this ability as intrinsically dependent upon our linguistic abilities. After all, language provides us a
representational medium for meaning and intentionality : thanks to language we are able to describe others people's and our own actions in an intentional way as in : "Ralph believes that Mary intends him to persuade George that p". According to this view, the intensionality of natural language, that is, its suitability for expressing meanings and thoughts, is the key for understanding the intentionality of our theory of mind.
A major challenge to this view came from studies on primate cognition and comparative psychology. In their 1978 famous paper : "Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?" D. Premack and G. Woodruff
argued that experimental evidence of chimpanzees' understanding of human behaviour could be interpreted as detection of intentions. Although Premack and Woodruff experimental data have been challenged by other primatologists (see Tomasello & Call, 1997, ch. 10), there is a growing evidence showing that non human primates have some intentional understanding of their social world (see Byrne & Whiten 1988; Tomasello & Call, 1997). The presence of such a capacity in non human (and obviously non-linguistic) species lead to the conclusion that it was possible to investigate TOM as a biological endowment independently of language.

The "False Belief Task"
A more focused perspective on TOM comes from developmental psychology. Children show a precocious ability to understand intentions and other important aspects of the mind (as gaze direction, attention, pretense). Nevertheless, in the early 80, the psychologists H. Wimmer and J. Perner showed that a full-fledged TOM doesn't develop before the age of 3/4. They set up a series of experimental tests in order to check whether children between 3 and 5 years of age were able to attribute a false belief to someone else. In one of these experiments, children see a scene in which a character, Maxi, puts chocolate in a drawer and goes away. While he is away, his mother takes a bit of chocolate for cooking and then puts it somewhere else and goes out. Then Maxi comes back, and the experimenter asks: "Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?". The 1983 original results showed that children over 5 did not have problems in attributing to Maxi a false belief, whereas younger child ren predicted indifferently that Maxi could look for the chocolate where his mother has put it. Further experiments lowered the threshold of attributing false beliefs to 3/4 years of age. The false belief task , as it is called, defines a sharp watershed between a stage of child's development in which children have a sort of "transparent" reading of mind and reality (people believe what it is the case), and a stage in which they show a capacity of having an "opaque" reading of mind and reality, that is, they can easily distinguish between what is the case and what people believe is the case. This has been taken as an important piece of evidence of the development of a domain specific ability in dealing with mentalistic concepts, such as believe, which doesn't seem to be available in earlier stages.

Which format for TOM?
Although there is general consensus that TOM is a domain specific theory whose inferences don't extend to other cognitive domains, there has been a lot of debate revolving around its format. Results on false belief task indicate an abrupt change during the third year of age. This lead many psychologists and philosophers (see Leslie 1997, Baron-Cohen 1995, Fodor, 1994) to describe the underlying cognitive structure responsible for TOM as an innate module, that is activated around three years of age. As in the case of language, the TOM module is dedicated, specific, fast, automatic, at least partly encapsulated, and its functioning is largely independent of intellectual general capacities of the individual. It can be specifically impaired or function in the presence of other mental impairments. This view fits with the evidence that comes from experimental studies of severe psychiatric impairments as autism, (see Baron-Cohen 1995, Frith, 1994). Autistic children have a significant lower performance on false belief task compared to other cognitive tasks for testing intelligence and language capacities. This lead to the hypothesis that autism could be the consequence of a specific deficit of the Theory of Mind Module (TOMM).
Other scholars (see Carey, 1985; Wellman, 1990) have argued for a "theoretical" model of TOM : instead of seeing it as a mental mechanism, they conceive it as a naive theory, with posits, axioms and rules of inferences. Mental states such as beliefs are theoretical entities, the posits of this theory. In this perspective, often called the Theory Theory it is not possible to pry apart our concepts of mental states from the set of inferences that individuate them within our theory of the mental world, as it wouldn't be possible to separate the concept of acceleration from those of speed and time in a physical theory.
Furthermore, theories change during development : this may lead to genuine conceptual "revolutions", to use the famous Thomas Kuhn's metaphor for theory change in science (see Kuhn . These radical changes of paradigm make a theory at a certain stage incommensurable with its earlier stages. Some advantages of this position are that it better explains the articulation of the development TOM with other children's abilities as mindreaders, as for example detection of desires (see Gopnik et al. 1994), pretense (see Perner 1991), emotions (see Harris, 1989).
A striking different hypothesis, suggested in the mid-80s by Robert Gordon (see Gordon 1986), is mental simulation, that is, the idea that our capacity of psychological understanding depends on our ability to run cognitive simulations. According to this view, it is possible to infer other people's intentions and future actions by using our own mind as a model for theirs. All we need is to be able to run a decision process "off-line" : to pretend to be in other people's shoes and see how our mind would resonate as if we were in the pretended context. Simulation doesn't involve a complex theory of mind : it involves a capacity of pretense and of putting oneself in the other's place. Its advantages are (1) that it can easily explain the emergence of pretense at a much earlier stage of development than that of TOM, given that it considers pretense as a completely different cognitive resource, and (2) that it is a much more economical explanation. Crucial evidence for this model may come from studies on the first-person/third-person ascription of beliefs in children. A series of experiments has investigated self-ascription of beliefs in order to check whether children were better psychologists of their own mental states than of others'. Evidence has been discussed (see Gopnik & Astington 1988, Gopnik 1993) that shows a symmetry between first-person and third-person grasp of intentional states. Children are no more reliable about their own mental states than they are about others'. This seems to suggest that our own mind is not a better model for mental life than others'. However, the discussion still goes on, and other results have been put forward in order to defend the simulation model (see Davies & Stone, 1995).

Evidence from autism
Research in clinical psychology is one of the main areas of application of theory of mind. Autism is one of the most severe psychiatric impairment that can occur during the early stages of development. It is a rare deficit, touching 4/5 children out of 10.000. Its symptoms range from anomalies in social communication, absence of imagination, isolation, lack of capacity to involve in social games, to an almost total impairment of cognitive functions.
In 1985, U. Frith, S. Baron-Cohen and A. Leslie advanced the hypothesis that the central symptoms of autism (anomalies in social interaction, communication and pretense) could be explained by a specific deficit of TOM. They adapted the false belief task to autistic children and ran experiments with a control group of Down children. Although autistic children had better cognitive performance than Down children in many cognitive tasks, they massively failed the false belief task. Furthermore, the amount of successful performance didn't increase significantly with age. This lead to the conclusion that one central component of autism is a specific deficit in mindreading, and not an impairment of general cognitive abilities.
Still, there is a small percentage of autistic children who actually succeed the false belief task. If autism is defined as a specific deficit of TOM, how is it possible? Experiments have shown that these "talented" autistic fail nonetheless in more sophisticated mindreading tasks, as the second-order false belief task (see Perner & Wimmer, 1985; Happé, 1994) in which subject are asked to attribute embedded mental states as in "Ralph believes that Peter wants that Mary thinks..."). Although they may have some rudimental mindreading ability, they lack the full-fledged metarepresetational capacity that is fundamental for communication (see Sperber 1994b).

Theory of Mind and evolution
Comparative studies with other primates lead psychologists and primatologists to speculate about the phylogenesis of TOM (see Byrne & Whiten 1988; 1997). If TOM is a specific cognitive module, whose function is to detect information within a particular cognitive domain (psychology), it could be the product of a selective pressure that conferred fitness advantages to individuals endowed with mindreading abilities. Furthermore, a complex cognitive module is constituted by sub-modules that may indicate some interesting facts about the phylogenetic history of the module. S. Baron-Cohen has argued (see Baron-Cohen 1995) that TOM recruits other modules for its functioning, as an Eye Direction Detection module (EDD) and a Shared Attention Detection module (SAD). These two modules are clearly present in other species. Comparative studies may lead to a more precise understanding of the evolution of these abilities.
The best known evolutionary hypothesis for theory of mind is the social intelligence or Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis , according to which : "the social environment might have been a significant selective pressure for primate intelligence" (see Byrne & Whiten, 1997, p. 2). Primates show a surplus of intelligence that overcomes the immediate survival needs, as eating, avoiding predators, feeding offspring, etc. According to the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis this surplus intelligence might have en advantageous for social manipulation, deception and cooperation. This suggests a slightly independent evolutionary history of mindreading abilities from that of language. (see Sperber,

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-20 14:37:08
Link to this Comment: 5764

Holding up my end of the discipline-spectrum, by passing a thin rope, made of poetry, across the chasm that stretches before us til "Emergence" meets again on July 9...

I wanted to share with you Howard Nemerov's "The Dependencies," which seems to me a beautiful illustration of so much we've been discussing these past months:

The route the poem took to get to you (from Cassandra Fraser @ UVA, to me, to Andrea Friedman, who just returned it to me this morning.... ) is itself a demonstration of interdependency (as is this linked posting...)

Also: the epigram, by the well-known physiologist Albrecht van Haller also provides an amusing link to our work: van Haller proved the concept of "irritability" of tissue, distinguishing between nerve impulse (sensibility) and muscular contraction (irritability). Shades of intentionality. Trying to read intelligence. What goes on Inside. Theory of Mind.

Anyhow: here's the poem.

The Dependencies

Natura in reticulum sua genera connexit,
non in catenam: homines non possunt nisi
catenam sequi, cum non plura simul
possint sermone exponere.

Nature knits up her kinds in a network, not
in a chain; but men can follow only by
chains because their language can't handle
several things at once.

-Albrecht van Haller

This morning, between two branches of a tree
Beside the door, epeira once again
Has spun and signed his tapestry and trap.
I test his early-warning system and
It works, he scrambles forth in sable with
The yellow hieroglyph that no one knows
The meaning of. And I remember now
How yesterday at dusk the nighthawks came
Back as they do about this time each year,
Grey squadrons with the slashes white on wings
Cruising for bugs beneath the bellied cloud.
Now soon the monarchs will be drifting south,
And then the geese will go, and then one day
The little garden birds will not be here.
See how many leaves already have
Withered and turned; a few have fallen, too.
Change is continuous on the seamless web,
Yet moments come like this one, when you feel
Upon your heart a signal to attend
The definite announcement of an end
Where one thing ceases and another starts;
When like the spider waiting on the web
You know the intricate dependencies
Spreading in secret through the fabric vast
Of heaven and earth, sending their messages
Ciphered in chemistry to all the kinds,
The whisper down the bloodstream: it is time.

- Howard Nemerov

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-06-22 11:31:06
Link to this Comment: 5766

This probably isn't worth a comment, but in today's N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine there is an article on the "marketing" of Pabst Blue Ribbon which illustrates an emergent phenonenon. The beer, which was almost extinct, developed without any help from the company a cult following which spread on its own. The company is now trying to figure out how to market the beer from the bottom up (to sort of accelerate the emergent process) as opposed to the Bud/Miller top down Super Bowl Ad modelof marketing.

the "budweiser effect" and ... world politics
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-06-22 19:43:34
Link to this Comment: 5768

I saw the article too and it reminded me of a discussion years ago with my son Jed when he coined the term "the Budweiser effect". Jed was curious about why people drink different beers and why some names were familiar to him, others less so. I explained that some beer makers try and sell to the widest possible market and, in so doing, had to make a product that was primarily forumlated to displease the fewest people rather than to particularly please anyone. Ah, the "budweiser effect" Jed said.

Seems to me that this is indeed an issue relevant to thinking about emergent systems in general, as well as in the context of economics, politics, and world affairs. How DOES one avoid the "budweiser effect"? Could it be related to Doug's concerns from last week? And maybe to thinking more about US foreign policy?

Thoroughly Departmental
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-23 01:05:19
Link to this Comment: 5770

Some of us are finding insights emerging in the beer we drink (or read about). Some of us are finding them @ church. I went this morning to Bryn Mawr Presbyterian w/ Paul Burgmayer, who is running a summer series on poetry in which I'll be presenting. The presenter today was Bill Brower, who "spoke" Robert Frost's poetry--from memory--for an hour, straight (and explained to me afterwards that the key is letting your mind make the associations--"naturally. You don't have to think--if you do, you'll forget"). Two of the poems Bill "spoke" put me delightfully in mind of emergent phenomena (misunderstood as beginning w/ "little Einsteins"); the poems are very cute both in imagining conscious intention on the part of small creatures AND in denying it to large ones (both are also--thereby--quite satiric about the academic enterprise).

In the first of these, "A Considerable Speck (Microscopic)," the speaker spies a dot on a sheet of paper and recognizes

...unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
...again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die....

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

"Departmental" describes the activity of an ant who runs across a carcass:

...he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic...
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician,
And taking formal position
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair.

It couldn't be called ungentle.
But how thoroughly departmental.

Reality television meshes poorly with Einsteins
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-06-23 11:21:44
Link to this Comment: 5771

In today's NYT, a story about how high-concept movies and TV shows may be outcompeting the traditional blockbusters, which relied more on star power than on concept. Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna used to dominate marquees and Billboard charts; today the biggest sellers are starless movies (e.g. Finding Nemo and 2 Fast 2 Furious) and no-name musical acts (e.g. Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini).

It's all about this self-organized marketing, like in the Pabst story which Mark pointed us to. Today's story makes two points that I think are relevant to our other discussions. First, the concept must be simple. The co-head of motion pictures at Dreamworks is quoted as saying, "You need concepts that can be easily grasped, that can be described quickly in the schoolyard or at the grocery store checkout. You need urgent word of mouth." So interactions among actors must be simple and efficient. Word-of-mouth marketing of TNN's Stripperella (the network's commercials say, "She's an exotic dancer by night, and a sexy superhero by later night") is bound to work better than word-of-mouth marketing of the excellent but hard-to-describe BBC workplace comedy The Office (which doesn't even have a promo sentence). Doug's Einsteins have no role in promoting Joe Millionaire.

Second point: the concept must be compelling. That is, the interaction (the cashier telling me that I should go see The Hulk) must be self-powered. People must want to recommend the product -- Paul might put it in terms of each recommendation's increasing the entropy of the universe. "Urgent" word-of-mouth.

memes and belief systems at the limits of our know
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-06-23 11:53:56
Link to this Comment: 5772

So you all must also have seen the Sunday NYT mag article on autism and savants, although it was kinda thin.
Has anyone read much about "memes," coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976)? (in his words: "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world."

(also, from a review: I haven't read yet)
Cultural Software, by J.M. Balkin (Yale, 1998)
Applies theories of cultural evolution and the theory of memes to the problems of ideology and justice. Instead of resting the concept of ideology on notions of "false consciousness," Cultural Software shows how ideological effects get produced through the spread and reproduction of forms of cultural know-how, or cultural software.
Human beings are the bearers of this cultural software, it helps constitute them and shapes them as persons with distinctive values and purposes. Yet cultural software reproduces whether or not it serves the interests of human beings. Rather, cultural conventions and institutions spread as if they had their own interests in survival and reproduction. And some kinds of cultural software can act like virtual parasites, breeding unhappiness and injustice as they reproduce in human minds and institutions.

On the Need for Multiple Paths
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-23 17:28:11
Link to this Comment: 5773

More musings
(this my compensation for our not meeting this week...
I just take the conversation inside...
but then can't seem to keep it to myself....)

Anyhow, today, trying to think through a problem of my own, I found myself thinking about a key aspect of emergence, which Ted may have been the first to flag, when he called our attention to the "hugely interesting" aspect of reader-generated Online Comics, in which "multiple paths exist simultaneously." What I'm calling "key" here is the need for branching/exploring multiple avenues for possible solutions: a process which not only turns up unexpected answers, but also functions as a guard against the vulnerability of having only one.

I came across two examples of this today: the first is in a novel I just finished, Ursula LeGuin's The Telling, in which one of the beleagured protectors of all that is good says, "We were stupid...Carrying everything up here. We should have left it all over the place. Left the books with whoever had the books, and made copies. Spent our time copying, instead of bringing everything we have together where they can destroy it all at once....Now we' ve got our treasure where we can't use those technologies."

Now (stay w/ me here) that science fiction scenario has enormous resonance for contemporary world politics, which seems to be a current interest of our group. I'm on the mailing list for Tikkun, in which Michael Lerner just wrote an impassioned letter about "The Predictable Consequences of a Flawed Road Map":

"because the Road Map calls for the cessation of terror as a prerequisite to any peace negotiations, fundamentalists on both sides know that in order to pre-empt peace, all they need to do is perpetrate violence on the other side. Because of this, the Road Map, as it is currently formulated, guarantees the immediate escalation of terror and actually rewards violence. Their aim, to stop the peace process, the Road Map tells them, can only be achieved in one way: they must plant bombs! That is why there has been a serious escalation of violence since the signing of the agreement."

I find this analysis very striking, and very, very useful: it shows that in laying out a single plan one also lays out a single way of blocking it. The alternative offered by emergent systems thinking is the notion that, if there are multiple paths, the way can never be blocked. Shades of the Traveling Salesman Problem: a very different kind of Road Map.

Without losing sight of the need to model this way of thinking in campus politics (don't forget the group performance scheduled for the next BMC faculty meeting!), perhaps the emergence group might also want to write a group letter to our congressmen, to suggest a different way of thinking about both national and global interventions.

I'm serious: this kind of thinking really could make a difference in our political culture and in the way we do social action.

I think.

The meme meme and why we like simple models
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-06-24 13:41:45
Link to this Comment: 5774

Re: Jan's inquiry re: memes, I've occasionally thought that the meme meme would make a nice case study for an essay on some of the differences between scientists and other kinds of researchers. The meme has been pretty successful as a meme: I don't hear people talking about memes as often as I hear them talking about weapons of mass destruction, say, but I've heard meme talk for many years -- probably with similar frequency year after year. It hasn't taken hold at all, though, in biology. As a bridge between disciplines, it seems to be sort of one-way. It's encouraged some cultural theorists and social scientists to co-opt some of the ideas and language of biology, but it hasn't brought any of the language of culture or society into biology. Why? I have a few ideas, but it's a topic probably better suited to a Science in Society Brownbag discussion.

As far as the emergence discussions go, I think memes are an interesting example of simple models which sacrifice mechanistic realism and quantitative precision for generality. Most of the models we discuss are simple and abstract: simple actors interacting by simple rules. Because they're so simple, they're as close to representing one real-life thing as another real-life thing. A cell in a cellular automaton could be a city block or a rainforest tree, since the only things that matter in the model are things both blocks and trees share: conditions, locations, neighbors. By proposing the notion of memes, Dawkins really just pointed out that organisms and ideas share several features -- and that if these features were to be represented in a simple model (like an epidemiological model), then this model might say things about the dynamics of all sorts of things, like viruses, songs, gossip, lice, metaphors.

reality TV as emergent TV
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-06-25 12:57:25
Link to this Comment: 5780

Since reality television's been on my mind, Anne's recent post reinvoking the multiple-plots thing caused me to notice that most reality-television shows share some key features with emergent systems. (Have we discussed this before? I remember Tim talking about reality TV in one of the morning meetings, but I don't remember the context.) Most reality shows have two interlaced components. There's usually some sort of game in which the dozen or so (non-famous) participants compete, live, make out, or otherwise interact with each other. The real fun of the shows, however, is in the relatively unstructured scenes in which the participants all eat, drink, and sleep together with no scripts and little direct manipulation by the shows' producers. In these scenes, tensions from the game components blossom into rivalries, alliances, sexual liasons, and sexual betrayals. The audience gets much of the thrill of soap operas, but none of it's scripted.

So, it's all there: no author, many actors, structured interactions, unstructured consequences, unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes the enterprise succeeds, and we get compelling drama: Married by America was frequently gripping, sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes we get pure boringness: as far as I know, nothing beyond an occasional flossing crisis has ever happened on Big Brother.

reality TV
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-06-25 19:41:30
Link to this Comment: 5784

Many participants have protested that their "unscripted interactions" were manipulated and distorted in the editing process. I'm not arguing this changes the emergent nature of what happened, but perhaps that what we saw as demon-observers may be less so?
The first Survivor seemed to me the most "emergent," possibly because it was longer and less heavily edited (apparently), but also because the participants seemed, well, more random in the sense that they were rougher around the edges and not as photogenic as in later shows. The sexual dynamics seemed, thus, less overwhelming of the other ways in which people interacted. Or maybe I'm just fondly remembering the viewing experience... and the hilarious web commentary.

Editing negates emergence?
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-06-26 12:24:14
Link to this Comment: 5786

I agree that much of the drama in reality TV comes from editing. And I agree that this fact might hurt my claim that reality TV is emergent showmaking.

But editing occurs in several other processes which we've been calling emergent: evolution by natural selection, GAs, training of neural networks. Maybe we should consider reclassifying these as order-generating but not really emergent. Oh, and we also come back to the which-phenomena-do-we-single-out-as-interesting (or -ordered) problem. Is there anything inherently special about the things we've been calling "surprising"? Is Langton's ant highway really different from any other ant spaghetti? Are glider guns (in Conway's Life) really more interesting than traffic lights? And Wolfram's CA classes -- what did we decide about them, again?

Sorry to dredge up old questions. Maybe we should put together a FAQ list.

"emergent pedagogy"
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-06-29 10:16:16
Link to this Comment: 5789

Was trying to explain what it was to Alison Cook-Sather, director of the Bico Education Program, who will hopefully be in shape to join us for upcoming conversation. And so the following, as an offering for that conversation:

"Emergent pedagogy" = a new emergent, itself reshapable as it is further thought through by interacting individual/collective stories. For the moment, nothing more/nothing less than "teacher" and "student" both as active learners, engaged in somewhat unpredictable interactions out of which come new less wrong stories at both individual and collective levels and greater skill at creating useful new stories.

An old story (to some) in new trappings. Cf.

Advantage of new trappings is that it provides broader connections (biological evolution, brain organization, lots of amusing computer models in lots of realms) to justify what good teachers know anyhow, and the occasional new insight by comparing education to other parallel contexts that might otherwise not have occurred to one (eg importance of noise/randomness in classroom?). And, in reverse, suggests that what works in classroom should in fact be recognized as more relevant in other contexts. For the latter, see War is a Bad Metaphor and Theorizing Interdisciplinarity.

Emergent Pedagogy, Continued
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-30 14:29:59
Link to this Comment: 5791

As Alison and I were en route to the conference sponsored last week by the International Association for Learning Alternatives, I also found myself trying to explain "Emergent Pedagogy" to her. I discovered, in the process, that we already have "considerably more" than what Paul describes above. Under the rubric of "Resurrection," I'd listed a number of characteristics:

Such practices have long been common among the progressive educators @ the IALA conference; for instance, Alison and I shared a panel w/ Chris Mercogliano, who wrote Making It Up as We Go Along. This is the story of Albany Free School, the oldest inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. Alison and I were both astonished and delighted to learn that it was founded (in 1969) by a BMC alum, Mary Leue, and that it has @ its center a "council meeting system" which (shades of BMC faculty meetings!) is guided by Robert's Rules of Order. Any one can call for council at any time, to address any problem; a quorum is not required, and a simple majority rules.There is no problem this self-correcting system can't handle, Chris claimed, including the problem of its own dissolution, which has happened more than once!

I see Albany Free School, and its simple starting condition, the council system, as a great illustration of the sort of "editing" Ted was describing above, a process which is both order-generating and, I'd say, emergent.

Looking forward to exploring these possibilities further on Wednesday--


Death Redux: Sex and Suicide
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-06-30 14:47:17
Link to this Comment: 5794

On another matter entirely...

My husband reads an entirely different set of journals than I do, but keeps his eye out for articles that might be of interest to me, including those that illustrate what he says are only sort of jokes I like: those about male pratfalls (even better, from his point of view: those in which the pratfallen men turn out to have the last laugh). Yesterday he gave me a piece from the "science and technology" section of The Economist, which is a perfect example of the latter, as well as of the necessity of death for emergence/evolution:

"the orb-weving spider...inserts...two sperm-carrying organs, known as pedipalps, into his mate and then actively terminates himself....Matthias Foellmer of Concorida University in Montreal and Daphne Fairbairn of the University of California, Riverside...explain in a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that the palps of dead males are fixed in an inflated state, making them hard to remove. As a result, dead males may act as plugs to prevent other males from copulating, ensuring that the suidical male, not a rival, fathers the off-spring. In short, who dares win will die--but his genes are more likely to live on in the next generation."

Comments from Mark
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-07-02 15:03:14
Link to this Comment: 5798

[posted by dblank from a note by Mark K.]:

...My only insight is that people themselves (ie their personalities) are emergent phenomena. They are continually being influenced by many small factors that each have imperceptible effects on their personalities (sometimes there are very big events, but I think we overemphasize their significance and I'll ignore them - by this I mean, if a child's parents get divorced, that is a very big event in that child's life, but how the child reacts to it is the product of the gazillion prior events and genetics, each with mostly small influence, that created that child's personality). The divorce, to be sure, has an independent effect, but I think we exaggerate these big events because we can see them. There are also huge positive feedback loops involved: people like what they are good at, they practice what they like, practice makes them good at it.

In the face of this, formal education has little independent influence on children's lives. They take from it what their personalties have predisposed them to take form it (some take a lot and some take almost nothing and it is hard to influence this).

Emergent Pedagogy: A Report and Invitation...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-02 22:41:51
Link to this Comment: 5800

I was delighted that we were able to spend this morning's session discussing the aspect/application of emergence which is for me by far the most interesting and potentially productive--that of pedagogy. It was a further delight to have new company in our conversation (Kim Cassidy, Alison Cook-Sather, Nia Turner).

Granting the "emergent" belief that the present is accounted for--albeit indeterminately--in terms of the past, I began the discussion by suggesting that we try thinking together about

We went on to explore a wide range of other related-and-fascinating topics:

As we closed, Alison recommended two books relevant to our discussion:

Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education and
Raymond Callahan, Education and The Cult of Efficiency.

I create this archive of our conversation both for myself, as a resource for the Summer Institute on Exploration and Emergence, and in the hopes that we will be able to continue the conversation both here in the forum (what did you students think about all this???) and in the group in the fall.

untrade-able non-objects
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-06 09:25:20
Link to this Comment: 5802

I've been at work this weekend on a new project about, oh, commodification of research and learning, and the cycle of reciprocity and community-building that is gift-giving, trying to reach for an alternative form of "gifting" that is free, no strings attached (following Derrida), "never (a) present."

En route to figuring all this out, I found myself reading an essay by Jean Lave and Ray McDermott. "Estranged Labor/Learning," Outlines 4 (1), 2002: 19-48 is a strong follow-up to a VERY important piece McDermott wrote some years ago w/ Herve Varenne, "Culture as Disability," which a number of us in the Education and CSem programs have found enormously valuable in our teaching.

Anyhow, in "Estranged Learning," which is a Marxist analysis of alienated educational praxis, Lave and McDermott make a number of comments which seem to me to pick up and expand on our exploration of emergent pedagogy last Wednesday. We had begun our discussion w/ the postulation that emergent pedagogues, rather than designing courses to provide complete "coverage" (impossible anyway), might choose content that illustrates/gives students experience in particular WAYS of thinking; that is, choose material that motivates discovery.

Lave and McDermott frame/describe (what I think is) the same idea somewhat differently, suggesting that we replace "objects" of learning (which can include skills) w/ "activities," which cannot then be "traded" or "distributed" as "objects":

categories of current practice, are treated instituitionally as objects--a stockpile of objects, really: attention, memory, problem solving, higher order skills, and so on--and not as activities well tuned to the relations among people and their world. So we say, over and against the mainstream, that learning is dependent, situated, contextual and emergent. But it is only the first half of a critique of learning theory as currently insitutionalized...and its market place as estranged, alienated, and mystified. Perhaps the most mystifying and in the end the most alienated and alienating assumption is specifically a matter of distribution--a widely and deeply felt distinction that separates the production of official knowledges (e.g. science, literature, national curricular frameworks)...from their distribution through school practice.... "The production of knowledge stocks" is carefully distinguished from what boils down to their apparently non-generative, unchanging distribution as they are "transmitted" through schooling, "learned," and "transferred" beyond. (pp. 29, 34)

My translation of their Marxism into our emergence? That such pedagogy is neither goal-or-product oriented, but action-driven. And cannot be "traded."

Back now to this piece/stand I'm taking against commodification.

Emergence emerges again in the N.Y.Times Magazine
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-07-07 10:42:50
Link to this Comment: 5821

Seems to me that the title for our breakfast club could be "What is emergence and what is it good for?". One way to address the first question is to look for things that are and are not emergent. By comparing and contrasting what is and what is not emergence, we can get some understanding of its properties. So, while I see emergence in less places than some members of our club (for example, I definitely do not think that Watts' steam governor is an example of emergence), I do see it in a lot of places. One new place was an article in yesterday's N.Y.Times Magazine on trends in baby names: "Where have all the Lisas gone". It is interesting to go through the article and look at the explanations given for the various supposed trends and recast them in terms of emergence (for example, cellular automata). What is also interesting to me is that this is the second time in a couple of weeks that the magazine has had articles that conform closely to the emergent way of thinking, but the authors seem totally unaware of this.

Which brings me to the second question: once we have recast the descriptions in these articles in terms of emergence, where does that get us? I firmly believe that the Pabst Blue Ribbon article and the Lisa article are about emergent phenomena, but once I have recognized this, I don't know what to do with it. What deeper understanding or new insights do I get by recasting these phenomena as emergent (other than the act of recasting itself)? I really am at a loss here. Help!!!

Response to Mark
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-07-07 17:19:01
Link to this Comment: 5844

I actually think the greatest importance of the "emergence" recognition at the moment is the recognition that most of social (human) science need to come to grips with the fact that "personal agency" and "intentionality" play a much smaller role in human affairs than investigators of human creations are inclined to believe (see Emergence and Intelligence). In fact, people in general would be better of if they more clearly recognized the limited roles of "personal agency" and "intentionality". One can, by act of will, have SOME effect on things, but more than a dose of humility is appropriate.

The second point is that recognizing the emergent character of human phenomena gives one not only humility but also a set of tools that can be used more effectively to facilitate change (if that is what one is inclined to do). One needs to look for trigger and leverage points rather than attacking things head on, one needs to be patient, and one needs to be willing/able to manipulate instead of to assert/evangelize. One also needs to be alert for the Budweiser effect.

Baby names
Name: Timothy Bu
Date: 2003-07-08 10:54:44
Link to this Comment: 5866

Oddly, I had planned to raise the baby names article in tomorrow's presentation!

I agree with Paul and Mark about what some of the issues are, though I may disagree with Paul about the degree to which we have to recognize the highly limited nature of personal agency--in any event, it's a key issue for us to mess around with.

Wiki, Wiki, Who's Got the Wiki
Name: http://www
Date: 2003-07-08 12:23:42
Link to this Comment: 5867

Ok, this is a real RTFM moment, I'm sure. (RTFM=Read the Fucking Manual) where I reveal just how little attention I've been paying. But Serendip doesn't appear to be a Wiki anymore, or maybe I just don't have remote access to it. Anyway, I've done up a presentation for tomorrow, and I'd love to link to it from here, both so folks can have continuing access to it and to give you a preview and a chance to get in some pre-emptive comments, because agency is a huge, huge issue and difficult to squeeze into a single session.

URL for tomorrow's presentation
Name: Timothy Bu
Date: 2003-07-08 16:42:44
Link to this Comment: 5868

If you want a preview, you can see the outline of the presentation at

Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-07-09 00:32:26
Link to this Comment: 5869

Tim, You can find the main EPRG wiki schedule page at:

From there you can also jump to the Serendip Forums, and everything else.


Emergence and Unintended Consequences
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-07-09 13:59:09
Link to this Comment: 5891

Since one hallmark of emergence is "surprise", it should not be a surprise that emergence is a natural framework to analyze events that have unintended consequences. There is a news article today that is an extreme example of unintended consequences in education. An employee in a Mississippi factory killed 6 coworkers (and wounded 9 others) after apparently being angered by a business ethics course that he was required to take. I am sure that the creators of the course did not intend this outcome. One could make the case that something like this would have happened anyway since the man was apparently an angry individual and heavily armed, but he was also an employee at the plant for 19 years and had no criminal record.

At a minimum, this story illustrates the limits of education and the naive liberal view that people can be easily reformed. It also illustrates the meaning to me of the word "accident" and the possibilities of engineering outcomes in emergent systems, a subject that came up at this morning's breakfast.

People use the word "accident" for any bad outcome where the agent's actions were not directed toward creating that outcome (spilling milk while pouring, etc.). I'm not saying that this is a bad usage of the word, but to me there is a more interesting class of accidents that I first discovered when reading "The World According to Garp". If you haven't read the book, I won't gross you out with a description of the accident, but unlike the spilling milk example, this accident is an emergent phenomenon (though when I read the book 20 or so years ago, I had no idea what emergence was). Basically, the accident occurs because of a confluence of events, each slightly risky in themselves, but each of which in isolation would never have resulted in the accident.

If we go back to the Mississippi worker, his actions do not qualify as an accident because he intended the outcome, but it could be considered an accident from the firm's viewpoint (a bizarre kind of industrial accident caused by the ethics course). There undoubtably was a confluence of many factors that caused the worker to do what he did, so his action was in a sense emergent. Still, the "system" can be engineered by gun control. If the worker hadn't had access to guns, even though we still would not have been able to predict his reaction to the business ethics course, we could have limited the mayhem that resulted. "Surprise" is just another word for lack of mental computing capacity or lack of full understanding, but even in the absence of full understanding, we can engineer desired outcomes.

Without getting on my high horse about gun control, it is interesting how when faced with events like Columbine or this Mississippi disaster, Americans seek to turn the events into a simple single cause and effect non-emergent model. They search for a single explanation, like bad parenting (in Columbine) or racism (in Mississippi). These explanations are almost never correct (the racism explanation has already been discredited), but people gravitate to them to make the event understandable and predictable. It also gives people some sense of control, and safety, because if you can predict the event, you may be able to stop it short of gun control.

Evolution isn't emergence
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-11 16:00:22
Link to this Comment: 5937

The evolution of biological complexity by natural selection -- as I understand evolved complexity's claim to emergence, it goes like this: complexity and aptness result from hundreds of thousands of selection events acting on organisms which do not actively (consciously?) influence the direction of evolution. There's no plan for what gets selected or for what variants exist to be selected from, and so all this complexity we see emerged from simple, unintelligent events. That's not enough for it to be called emergence. When a rough stone wheel is worn smooth and efficient by use, is the smoothness an emergent phenomenon? I say no. Here are my concerns:

I propose the following tightening of what counts as emergence.

Okay, lemme have it.

Nature of emergent phenomena
Name: Rob
Date: 2003-07-12 08:16:51
Link to this Comment: 5938

Regarding Ted's 4 interesting suggestions concerning restrictions on use of the term emergence (I'll let others comment on his evolutionary biology):

#s 1 & 4: "identical" or "same" by what criterion? I'm willing to grant that the cells in a CA are identical by almost (but not quite) any criterion (since they vary, at least in spatial position, relative to the rest of any finite grid); but ants surely aren't identical. Some are more aggressive than others, some move faster, some slower, some are larger, some do we decide which variations can be overlooked in their effects on the operation of the rule system...even if the rule system is identical, which is arguable? And by this criterion all human social psychological phenomena would, it seems to me, be ruled out as emergent since it is probably impossible to identify any psychological characteristic of human beings on which they are identical, i.e., we all functions according to varying rule systems— varying over people at the same time; and, for cultural-historical-developmental reasons, varying within individuals and societies over time.

#2: seems reasonable

#3: if birds (like boids) regulate their movement in flocking behavior by calculating the average velocity of the flock (which they may not of course), family members regulate their interpersonal behavior by taking the emotional temperature of the family group as a whole at any point in time, and people their stock buying behavior by whether or not the market (or the economy) as a whole is going up or down, then this would seem to rule these out as emergent phenomena by this criterion.

I would be prepared to accept the idea that some emergent phenomena can be described as Ted has described them; but I would be very hesitant to restrict the definition of emergence this way in general. Doing so would, I think, define away much of what it most interesting about emergence.

on emergence and cities
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-07-13 13:34:42
Link to this Comment: 5939

Lucy Kerman is an old friend, one time colleague in Resources here, and currently assistant to the president of UPenn with major responsibilities for Penn's West Philadelphia initiatives.

Lucy ( has been following our conversations and sent me an email which seemed to me of general interest and so post here with her permission:

Some of the points in the article below about Jane Jacobs reminded me of what your emergence group has dealt with over the past year. I don't think the article itself is very smart, but the description of how successful urban areas develop -- without planning, but spontaneously with people acting out of their own individual visions and self-interest in a way that creates a workable whole -- seems right to me. The work group I am involved with is going through the process not of developing a "plan" but of finding "principals" that this diverse group can agree upon, which will in turn lead to action of some sort. The process of doing that -- getting all the ideas out, defining sets or patterns or ways of thinking about different ideas, letting the beginnings of consensus emerge from the act of reconciling the different sets -- is all very interesting.   

Jane Jacobs, The Anti-Planner.

Emergence is dead; long live emergence!
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-07-14 01:15:44
Link to this Comment: 5940

Ted suggested a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) list not long ago, and I think that this is a great idea. Not necessarily so that it can provide answers, but, by creating one, it may help us see the issues. Which might help us to actually write an article (the so-called "White Paper") explaining why we are interested in emergence, and why we think it may be helpful for other disciplines to look at.

I've started a FAQ over at Here, I am trying to reconcile all of the many aspects of emergence that we have wrestled with over the past year, and put into a concise definition. Here's a first stab:

''Emergence'' is a catch-all word for a way of looking at systems, artificial (simulated) or real. It is a framework for explaining phenomena, a paradigm for understanding complex systems. It is not a property that some systems have and others do not, but rather a stance taken by an observer that places special importance on a number of components: Because emergence is a perspective, it necessarily involves two systems: the observer and that which is being observed. Therefore, some components (such as "surprising results") are non-scientific concepts, yet very real aspects of the paradigm nonetheless.

(So, you can discuss the beginnings of this definition here, or head over to the wiki and begin to edit.)

I must admit that my instinct is to completely avoid the ideas of "surprising" or "amazing"... I just have no idea how one would define those. But let's run with this for a moment. Adding that as an aspect to the very definition confronts the observer issue head-on. I've come to believe that about intelligence, so why not emergence too?

This perspective allows some of us to see emergence everywhere, while some of us see it rarely. But is this too wishy-washy to be useful as a scientific concept?


Emergence is all about levels
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-14 11:05:58
Link to this Comment: 5960

I'd like to respond to Rob's response to my first pass at a narrow definition of emergence by suggesting that we all talk in more detail about levels of organization. I'll talk about specifics first and say some more general things along the way and at the end:

So, general suggestions: I expect we'll talk a lot about levels of organization at this Wednesday's emergence meeting. The topic is how ecologists think about levels, and it starts at 8:00.

Another way of putting it
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-14 16:43:37
Link to this Comment: 5963

Another way of putting my claim that actors can respond to the global if it's locally relevant is the way I put it here:

A variable that must be measured globally must not be experienceable locally and must not have local relevance. Wait, I'll refine it: can't react to a variable that must be experienced globally, since some variables might be experienced locally but only measureable (in a precise way) globally. Measure, experience -- slippery words for concepts which should be nailed down.

Information is neither global or local
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-07-15 09:12:58
Link to this Comment: 5965

I believe that the "perception of levels" is an important aspect to emergence (and have added it to the developing wiki definition). But, I think that this is one attribute that belongs to the observer.

How could one test to see if something is coming from (or being produced by) a "level"? In information theory, a bit is a bit. The bit might represent global information (number of ants in the colony, for example) or something more local to an actor, or a combination. But I don't think it will be useful to try to determine where the meaning of the bit resides (global or local).


on the streets
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-15 12:09:54
Link to this Comment: 5983

I'll be sorry to miss Ted's presentation, tomorrow morning, about levels of organization--I'd like to ask some questions (since not then, now!)about the levels of perception/perception of levels Doug mentions above.

I'm writing, this week, from down on the farm, where the notion of limited resources is also much w/ me (much more than when I'm on campus, free of the material constraints a farmer faces every day, freer to speculate...) Actually, the range of questions running through my head right juxtapose of my present location, an earlier life in WPhilly (where I got very discouraged about limited neighborhood resources)and Lucy's description of the current emergent planning taking place in Penn's West Philadelphia Initiatives.

Her description intersected, for me, w/ Doug's list of conditions for emergence, which include

I'm very intrigued by Penn's attempt, in collaboration w/ its neighbors, to help restore a neighborhood it once was quite active in destroying...and would nr interested to hear Lucy, w/ her experience working in Resources, talk more (in person, @ one of our sessions; or here, on the forum?) about how she sees her work intersecting w/ the range of factors Doug traces:

As usual: am wanting to move out of the computer/out of the box... into the world/into the street.

Lucy, help me w/ this?

on the farm
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-16 12:28:04
Link to this Comment: 5999

More from down this-a-way:

I read the article on Jane Jacobs which Lucy, via Paul, sent our way yesterday. Much there of interest to us/me. Certainly Jacobs´ vision of urban areas emerging as "the result of human action but not human design" fits nicely into our rubric of emergence. But several further points/turns of the screw to earmark for further exploration/discussion:

It´s this last matter which most captured my attention, and to which I invite us to return. Jacobs dismisses city planners as being "driven by the dictatorial complex: They want to deal with their fellow men in the way an enginneer deals all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."

This seems REALLY key to me: Jacobs'comment returns us QUITE neatly to the questions of agency which we were discussing with Tim last week; importantly, it invites us to use the concept of emergence as a way of talking about the free will of the agents involved. What they do will not control the outcome. But (in part because they aren't controlling/can't control outcome) they are free what they do. To do what they WILL.

I LIKE this.

Back in Town
Date: 2003-07-20 23:00:36
Link to this Comment: 6043

I'd sent last week, to those of us in/outside this group who are teaching in the < a href="/local/suminst/03/ee-ann.,html">Summer Institute on Exploration and Emergence, a link to < a href=">RacialSegregation, an essay by one of Panama's students, Lindsay Hills. I just finished reading the essay, in which Lindsay fiddles w/ Schelling's segregation game and theorizes about its usefulness in fiddling w/ racial segregation on the BMC campus. I want to record here some of her observations and insights, which added a number useful dimensions to our earlier conversations (and which I hope we can also add to our Institute sessions next week):

My favorite bits were two: her explanation, @ the end that "Segregation, whether voluntary or involuntary, is a restriction of opportunity; it hampers the flow of knowledge and experience and thus impedes diversification of interests and occupations."

Secondly, she thanks me for introducing her to emergence: "even though it was introduced as a ploy for us not to classify her class as chaotic, but rather realize that there may be some emergent properties involved."

So much for theorizing an emergent pedagogy!

Darwinian poetry
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-23 15:57:24
Link to this Comment: 6121

Help evolve poems by natural selection at Darwinian Poetry. Or read about it in this short New Scientist article.

Two Cultures Redux
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-24 10:27:58
Link to this Comment: 6151

Despite Ted's gesture, above (which I appreciate!) towards the humanist implications of "emergence," I'm finding myself a little non-plussed by what I learned in yesterday's discussion. I have for a number of years now been engaged in negotiating the Two Cultures Divide, beginning w/ the Conversation on that topic in winter 2001, and arriving, most recently, @ one of several papers on the generative productivity of the same, Theorizing Interdisciplinarity. But the distance between the project of the humanists and that of the scientists loomed suddenly very large to me this week, so large that I'm wondering how the bridge I've been working so hard to construct can hold.

On Tuesday afternoon, I participated in a wonderful discussion of the Graduate Idea Forum. At the suggestion of Roland Stahl, we were looking together @ Stephen Toulmin's Return to Reason, a philosophical exploration of our "intellectual obligation to abandon the Myth of Stability" (214).Toulmin's argument, which I found very compelling, is that "we can know nothing about the world of experience with complete certainty, and that any attempt to prove the superiority of one abstract, universal doctrine over its rivals is a product of human presumptuousness" (196). Although Toulmin's somewhat remiss in his homework, and in placing himself in the tradition, he is a pragmatist, and one of the aims of his book is to put "theorizing on a par with all other practical activities" (172). Toulmin did such a good job of tracing the (end!) of the history of the mistaken search for a "Universal Language which had Meaning and Rationality built in from the start"(70) that I found myself considerably taken aback in David Berger's excellent presentation, during Wednesday morning's meeting of the Emergence Group, of the New Kind of Science being laid out in Stephen Wolfram's attempt to pin down the universe into a fairly limited number of universal computations .

So: The Two Cultures, Reinstated. Redux. Where to go from here???

Re: Two Cultures Redux
Name: Al Albano
Date: 2003-07-25 10:01:49
Link to this Comment: 6177

That certainly was a great presentation by David Berger last time. Perhaps Anne's discomfiture with David's message comes from Wolfram's claim that it is science - or even more strongly, it is the "correct science." I tend to look at Wolfram's work as mathematics - done in the same spirit as mathematics has always been done. The mathematician considers an abstract system, endows it with rules, and seeks the consequences of those rules. Stating that the abstract system and its rules accurately describe the universe is of course the mathematician's prerogative, but whether it is true or not requires stringent experimental and observational confirmation. The Pythagoreans thought the music of the spheres was it, string theorists (who are supposed to be physicists) think strings are it, that unknown sage thinks it's turtles all the way down .... I can't resist quoting Russel: "The mathematician never knows what he is talking about, nor whether what he is saying is true, but ... at least he does know what he is doing."

Inevitable Incompleteness
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-26 11:31:46
Link to this Comment: 6184

Well, Al, I still want applicability. See some reflections arising from/in the current Summer Institute on Emergence.

Safire on tipping point
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-28 16:38:22
Link to this Comment: 6200

William Safire's On Language column in yesterday's NYT Magazine is on the term tipping point. Of course he brings ip Malcolm Gladwell's book. He also mentions Thomas Schelling's segregation model, best known to us in its NetLogo implementation. Schelling got the idea from U of Chicago political scientist Morton Grodzins, whom Safire quotes:

''White residents, who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly,'' Grodzins wrote nearly a half-century ago, ''begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This 'tip point' varies from city to city. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors.'' (Emphasis is Safire's.) Safire considers (and dismisses) alternatives to tipping point which may be about to tip over. Among them: critical mass, boiling point, and turning point. He misses some obvious ones: Pabst point, sandpile spasm, and glidergasmia.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-28 18:07:56
Link to this Comment: 6201


This week and next, I'm teaching, w/ Doug Blank and Kim Cassidy, the Summer Institute on Exploration and Emergence; this means we're thick in the process of finding out how this stuff "plays" in the world beyond our cozy circle. Speaking of which....

I've also been engaged in a couple of parallel-processing, out-of-forum conversations, via e-mail w/ Lucy Kerman and in the flesh w/ Andrea Friedman. Their comments have kept me chewing on this notion of closed systems: both practically (in terms of how this forum operates) and theoretically (in terms of how emergence works "best").

What I'm learning is that the language of our public on-line conversation can/does sound, to those who haven't participated in the Wednesday morning discussions, as theoretical, tight, self-referential. This isn't something that either Lucy or Andrea particularly objects to; but it bothers me a LOT. I very much want this to be an open forum; "a fundamental part of Serendip's development" involves encouraging continuing conversation among lots of different folks (see Serendip Forums.) If our forum area seems to use a "closed" language, or a shorthand that others can't translate, then it's not serving its most important purpose, however well it may be serving the purpose of archiving our conversations.

This seems to me to be a question not only about the accessibility of conversations on Serendip, but also another example of the old "closed/open system" debate that has been running here for some time, w/ Doug and Ted arguing that limited resources are essential to emergence, and Paul insisting, contrari-wise, that "evolution in fact rarely proceeds under conditions of 'limited resources' and is not generally best thought of as a 'zero sum game.' Instead, much of evolution involves cooperative adaptations which themselves increase the total possible payoff and the total available resources."

I think, to increase payoff and available resources, these forums need to be "fed" with case studies from "outside." I think we need to hear (for instance) more of Andrea's thoughts about (ecological) "sustainability," and the critique it offers to the notions we've been playing with, about conceptualizing systems of unlimited resources. I think we need to hear more of Lucy's musings about what happens when you enter a place of scarce resources and increase funding; how ethical is it to raise expectations?

"Say you have kids who can't read (our issue here all the time). What do you make of that? what kind of goals do they have? what are your goals for them? do you reach kids where they are or find ways to move them somewhere else? what if their expectations (and the expectations of their culture) are 'different'-- do you accept their low expectations or help them see that there are others? do you do that according to your middle class values or do you try to see another value that is 'theirs'?"

As Lucy goes on to say,

"overly theoretical discussions, even those that come from serious initial consideration of case studies...force a pattern for the sake of the theory, rather than responding to what is actually happening....there is inevitably less room for innovation when there is an effort to reify it all and fit everything into clear theoretical categories. "

What I'm fretting/worrying about:

the degree to which "emergence" has become, in our group, a "theory" that is guiding/limiting the explorations it was designed to...provoke in the first place. Some good case-study-observations might help...

unsettle that/open things up....

Is this intended to be a public discussion?
Do we want/need it to be?

Edgily, A.

Yeah, it's theory!
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-29 16:00:41
Link to this Comment: 6212

But emergence is all about theory! We're all interested in different real-life phenomena; what brings us all together is this abstract, mathematical thing. Mark is interested in how inflation, unemployment, etc, result from individual consumer choices. I'm interested in how optimal leaf placement results from individual meristematic growth decisions. What do we have in common is basically a math problem.

Lucy (via Anne) contrasts theory and "what is actually happening." But if the abstract stuff is what is common among all our disciplinary interests, then maybe the theory is what's really happening. Plants growing, interest rates dropping, communities changing -- it's all just shadows on the cave wall. Or, our group is a place to see whether imagining them as shadows is a fruitful way to go.

In general I want to be cautious about applying concepts from biology or physics to social issues, cultural phenomena, personal situations. The reason is that one (the?) reason we do science is to be careful about defining and evaluating mechanisms. To transfer explanations as metaphors too easily can defeat that scientific purpose, as the metaphors carry the authority of science but not always the content. Classic example: social Darwinism. It's a misapplication of a good theory because the mechanisms underlying economic stratification are different from those underlying speciation.

Emergence, though, probably survives exporting just fine in many cases. Emergence as a concept is vague enough -- and its conditions are commonly enough met (we haven't agreed on a definition, but the conditions would likely include things like many similar agents, simple rules, different levels) -- that social and cultural systems probably often have emergent phenomena. But then it's no longer about metaphors, but rather it's the real thing. (Or, the math is always metaphor, the way all models are metaphors.)

I like case studies. I think they help us sharpen our theoretical tools. For them to be useful, though, we have to recognize some cases as not about emergence. And we have keep our intentions selfish -- we use cases to test and better articulate our ideas, not to provide insights into real-world issues. Two reasons: (1) we don't know enough yet about emergence, and (2) assuming that emergence is too generally useful tempts us into seeing emergent mechanisms when they may not be there.

You know the saying: When you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Emergent forecasting of terrorist attacks
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-29 16:59:11
Link to this Comment: 6213

Did everyone see this? It's from today's NYT, and it's about how the Defense Department was considering creating a futures market with anonymous investors in order to forecast assassinations, coups, and terrorist attacks. It was a DARPA project, and the idea was to harness a kind of emergent analysis of diffuse political, economic, and secret information. The story says that "the Pentagon, in initially defending the program, said such futures trading had proven effective in predicting other events like oil prices, elections and movie ticket sales."

According to descriptions given to Congress, available at the Web site and provided by the two senators, traders who register would have deposited money into an account similar to a stock account and win or lose money based on predicting events.

"For instance," Mr. Wyden said, "you may think early on that Prime Minister X is going to be assassinated. So you buy the futures contracts for 5 cents each. As more people begin to think the person's going to be assassinated, the cost of the contract could go up, to 50 cents. "The payoff if he's assassinated is $1 per future. So if it comes to pass, and those who bought at 5 cents make 95 cents. Those who bought at 50 cents make 50 cents." The senators also suggested that terrorists could participate because the traders' identities will be unknown.

Senators, of course, were horrified at the macabre nature of the "commodity" being traded. They also pointed out that the financial benefits of insider information could give incentive to people to carry out attacks.

Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-07-29 17:32:27
Link to this Comment: 6214

As a newbie and also classifiable, I guess, as a humanist since I can claim only to be a friend of science, not a scientist (and like some in the Graduate Ideas forum, I'm finding Snow's Two Cultures distinction far too simplistic), I have to say I agree the discussion is all about theory and that the group needs to keep working towards more a rigorous definition. I've been silent not out of intimidation but the wish to listen, read and learn more first. I think the forum posts have been fairly easy to understand and the overall tone friendly. Back to entropy for a minute -- has anyone read the article in the latest Scientific American about holographic bounds on the information in a system? Al, is this useful?

More on "prediction markets"
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-07-30 12:24:39
Link to this Comment: 6233

Brendan I. Koerner has an interesting description of so-called prediction markets at Slate. Like the planned terrorism market that the Defense Dept abandoned yesterday, prediction markets use a free-market system for predicting things like sports outcomes, the success of political candidates, and the profits made by different movies. Koerner writes:
These online bazaars allow punters to plunk down money, real or imagined, on the potential of films, ideas, or the U.S. military's success in snagging Saddam Hussein. It may sound like nothing more than glorified sports gambling, but many economists believe that such markets can suss out vital, hidden information about future events—much in the same way that a soaring stock on Wall Street can indicate that good things are afoot for the company in question.
The essay has a link to a 2003 paper on prediction markets by a couple of biz-school professors at the Univ of Iowa.

staff layoffs ... theory/practice
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-07-30 12:45:23
Link to this Comment: 6234

Was at the campus meeting this morning and came away feeling that the staff layoff yesterday/how it was brought about raises highlights some important "emergence" issues, and that some wrestling with them might in turn generate some ideas useful in a concrete context.

There were expressions of willingness by a number of people to take salary reducations themselves (or forgo other things they have) in order to avoid layoffs of others. The idea of people sacrificing in order to avoid/prevent immediate suffering of others is simple and emotionally satisfying. It also fits with a larger notion of the College as fundamentally an "emergent" system, in which the larger patterns result (or should result) from the collection of individual actions. In fact, lots of people felt about the layoffs that "how it was done" was the most serious problem: that more people should have been involved in the discussions of what to do rather than having those decisions made in a way that highlighted the top-down control aspects of a hierarchical system.

Is the well-being of a community actually best assured by having all individuals try to minimize what they know of local suffering of other individuals? My guess is no, that that one readily imagine circumstances in which that particular reliance on emergence will result in longer term problems for both the community and most of its members. More generally, is the well-being of a community actually best assured simply by local interactions among individuals? Here too my guess is no; that some simple models would verify the existence of circumstances where some kind of hierarchy improves outcomes both individually and collectively.

So, the theoretical questions, motivated by and relevant for a particular case: under what circumstances does one want/need, not want/need to rely on particular forms of interactive emergence? on emergence itself? What are the circumstances in which some "top down" organization/action is needed? And, of course, the practical questions which in turn can help the theoretical understanding: was THIS a case where it was necessary to go beyond emergence? And, whether yes or no, what are the next actions most likely to sustain a healthy community?

Emergence group ready to take on that kind of challenge?

taking on the challenge
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-30 13:13:08
Link to this Comment: 6235

Thank you, Paul: for exactly the kind of case study I was asking for, above (though of course now I'm wishing it hadn't been provided so readily to hand/close to home). Because I was "teaching about emergence" this morning, I missed the campus meeting about staff layoffs. But I'm wondering, from what I've heard, if a better outcome might not have emerged if more folks had been involved in earlier decision-making re: cost implications of enhanced sabbaticals, pay scales, etc. in a time of economic downturn? I don't see the choice as being one between "simple local interactions among individuals" and the need for "some kind of hierarchy," but rather as indicating the need for what we've been calling, in the Institute,"emergent pedagogy": one that involves "editing," evoking individual inputs/thoughts/reactions, then having senior administrators act on that information. More use might have been made of local insights/interactions much earlier in this process. Calls for them now seem...


A Bad Idea Whose Time has not Come
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-07-30 14:20:53
Link to this Comment: 6237

The terrorist futures market is now not going to happen. From a scientific point of view, it might have been interesting to see how well it would have worked, but my own view is summarized in the title of this post. It relates to my talk last spring and the two uses of emergence in economics. The first, which derives from Adam Smith, emphasizes the efficiency of markets. In more modern times, part of the efficiency of markets rests on their ability to aggregate information - it is this part that forms the rationale for the terrorist futures market. The problem is that the aggregate of the information is only as good as the information held by the participants. Except for the "inside traders", I doubt that this information would be very good. As such, it would be massively influenced by fads - in this case waves of optimism and pessimism. This is the second use of emergence in economics, and the one I am most interested in - the various ways that human interaction result in non-optimal outcomes (in this case bad predictions). Just look at the recent stock market boom and you can see that the aggregate prediction contained in the market price is NOT a good predictor of future earnings of firms. The same is true for the history of currency market futures to predict future currency prices.

Anyone who thinks markets are good at predicting the future should read John Maynard Keynes' Chapter 12 in the The Geneeral Theory. Well, I am off on my unplugged vacation.

Emergence as a Pedagogy
Name: Nia Turner
Date: 2003-08-06 12:34:57
Link to this Comment: 6274

I thought the participants in the emergence working group would be interested in reading an essay about the relationship between teaching and learning. This essay was inspired by a conversation I had the pleasure of participating in about emergence as a pedagogy.
Please visit Learning to Learn
Please e-mail your comments to Nia Turner at

Peter Corning
Name: Karen Grei
Date: 2003-09-02 09:46:11
Link to this Comment: 6298

Hi folks. Is anyone familiar with the work of Peter Corning? I attended the annual meeting of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences last week, and he was a speaker. He has written extensively on the evolution of political systems for the past 20 years., and has a "synergism hypothesis" that sounds a lot like emergence. (He was disparaging of the term, however). Might be worth looking into. Karen

some updating
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-08 20:18:48
Link to this Comment: 6380

A rich year last year. You can find all the forum discussion from it archived at And the schedule and notes from last year are archived at

Looking forward to seeing where we go this year. A couple of additions to Serendip's bookshelf may be relevant:

One other maybe useful note. I've been poking around at Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, and agree with David Berger that it is "not all talk", far from it. What Wolfram has at least laid the groundwork for establishing is that all known phenomena might in principle be accounted for by a small number of relatively simple and deterministic interactions of simple things. That is NOT trivial, and the route he traces to that conclusion is acccessible and interesting (and novel, if perhaps less so than he suggests). The operative point here is "might in principle", since my own suspicion is that one could equally establish (in similar ways) that all known phenomena might in principle be accounted for by a small number of relatively simple NON-deterministic interactions of simple things (see arguments from last year). The point is that, at the moment, we lack any basis for deciding which of two apparently quite different stories are preferable. Either someone is going to have to come up with a way to distinguish between deterministic and non-deterministic processes (and/or their potential outcomes) operationally or we're going to have to seriously entertain the idea that this apparently obvious distinction doesn't in fact represent a meaningful difference. In which case a bunch of other things (causality, agency, time among them) are going to have to be quite seriously rethought.

Would, I suppose, be fun either way, but I'm still betting that a counter-argument to Wolfram is to be found.

Consciousness and learning
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-09-09 09:50:30
Link to this Comment: 6385

Here are links to the two articles I mentioned in American Educator on the role of consciousness in learning, with an eye to further discussion of the role of leadership (-agogy) in emergent pedagogy.

The Summer 2003 column argues that students will remember incorrect discoveries as well as correct ones and many never learn that what they discovered was incorrect. The Winter 2002 column (second one linked here) discusses rote learning, shallow knowledge, inflexible and flexible knowledge.

Students Remember...What They Think About

Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise

Pressing Issues in Academe
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-22 15:22:05
Link to this Comment: 6569

The Chronicle Review includes in each issue "The Short List: Pressing Issues in Academe." This week (9/19/03) includes this observation:

"Most of nature is not random, as in a gas, nor perfectly ordered, as in a crystal, but disordered, such as in a glass or a sandpile. A new way of thinkng about disordered and complex systems is needed. . . . disordered and nonequilibrium materials play major roles in our daily lives, and an improved understanding of their properties is an important open problem in physics."

So: t/here we are: right where the pressing issues lie.

ever-thickening webs....
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-24 15:07:37
Link to this Comment: 6615

This is not quite enough for a "book report," not even for an entry on Serendip's Bookshelves, BUT...

I did want to flag an interesting item from The New York Review of Books (October 9, 2003): a book co-authored by a father-and-son team of historians, J.R. McNeill and Wiliam H. McNeill, . Highlights (because reminiscent in particular of the recent "book-report" on Mark Buchanan's Nexus, as well as our more long-standing exploration of the necessity of death for emergence, and related, in-other-working-group conversations re: diversity and "what counts":

Quicksilver Metaweb
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-09-24 17:06:03
Link to this Comment: 6618

Is Wiki about to hit the big time? Science-fiction novelist Neal Stephenson has set up a wiki for readers to annotate (and expand on) his new novel Quicksilver. It's called the Quicksilver Metaweb.

From Metaweb to Ape Songs
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-09-25 00:42:58
Link to this Comment: 6626

Some connections:

It is interesting that Stephenson credits Danny Hillis for inventing the "metaweb", but in order to actually implement the "metaweb" they use another invention, the "wiki" (which has already hit the big time in my book... even Serendip has a wiki!)


Forthcoming: Launching the Metaweb

Danny Hillis, Applied Minds, Inc., Clay Shirky, independent consultant, et al.

This paper outlines an approach to creating and disseminating knowledge in a networked environment called the Metaweb. Designed by Danny Hillis and the company Applied Minds, the Metaweb will be a collaborative creation in much the same sense at the World Wide Web, but it will facilitate the pursuit of real learning, not merely the scavenging for individual documents we have today, as well as creating mechanisms for assignment of authorship, usage tracking, and annotation that the Web lacks.

Danny Hillis is a well-known computer scientist, but I mentioned him in the Language group before for this piece that the emergenauts may enjoy:


Networks in biology
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-09-30 17:45:54
Link to this Comment: 6734

This just came through my Science alert email:

Disciplines including engineering and the social sciences have used networks to make sense of their data for many years. A special section of the 26 Sep 2003 Science described how biologists in fields as diverse as animal behavior and molecular biology are following suit and exploring how living systems work from a network perspective. A Viewpoint article by D. Bray provided an overview of basic network properties and explained how network theory can be used to understand complex molecular networks from metabolic cascades to gene regulatory pathways. U. Alon commented on recent advances in understanding the design principles of biological networks, highlighting their striking resemblance to recurring elements in engineering. This similarity between biological and human-made machines raises interesting questions about the role of natural selection in the design and evolution of molecular networks -- the topic of a related Perspective by A. Wagner on Science's STKE. J. H. Fewell discussed how the studies of social insect networks like that of the honeybee may profoundly impact our understanding of how interactions between individuals affect the group and how behavioral networks evolve. A review article by S. B. Laughlin and T. J. Sejnowski described how nature has optimized the structure and function of neuronal networks to maximize efficiency and precision. And, finally, A. H. McAdams and L. Shapiro reviewed the complex signaling pathways and regulatory mechanisms governing the cell cycle of the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus -- and the spatial and temporal controls that must be appreciated to understand how global regulators might operate.

more on networks and cultures
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-10-12 12:08:32
Link to this Comment: 6885

From Paula Viterbo (Mellon Fellow in History of Science):

Just remembered I know a guy (Lothar Krempel) at the Max Planck Institut in Cologne who works in complex systems, networks, et al. He's quite well know for his computer visualization method. Thought you might be interested (click on the subject list):

emergence: history/biology
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-10-17 15:50:29
Link to this Comment: 6907

The Mellon application Tim and I submitted, titled "Emergence and Contingency/Purpose/Agency: An Exploration of an Intersection Between History and Biology/Neurobiology is now on-line at Infelicities are of course "the responsibility of the authors", but many thanks to all for providing the kind of intellectual environment and support/commentary without which this wouldn't have been done.

some useful links
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-10-19 10:35:22
Link to this Comment: 6917

Several of us are playing with a new Serendip exhibit based on a netlogo implementation of Schelling's integration/segregation model. In the course of doing so, I came across some references/web that seemed to me of general interest in the social science realm:

Seeing Around Corners, an April 2002 Atlantic article by Jonathan Rauch about "artificial societies", including information about Schelling

Schelling's Segregation Model, information and a smaller applet

Schelling's Spatial Proximity Model of Segregation Revisited, paper at the 2003 meeting of the Society for Computational Economics

Migration Models, section of a draft book on Simulation for the Social Scientist, 1998

Schelling's Tipping Model, a free-standing program based on Axelrod (see below)

Resources for Agent Based Modelling, from Axelrod's Complexity of Cooperation Web Site

Agent Based Computations Economics and Complex Adaptive Systems, a directory of interactive computer demos, from the Agent-Based Computational Economics website

Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2003-11-05 12:30:25
Link to this Comment: 7122

Given the chaos (the standard kind) of the final minutes of yesterday's breakfast group, I didn't want people to miss the forest from the trees. So the forest is:

1) If emergence is about the implications of local interactions between many small agents, then the precise physicality of that interaction really matters, and it has to be modelled carefully. A big virtue of Netlogo is that it forces the programmer to do exactly that. In the journal article I referenced (which forms the metaphor for most of Butterfly Economics), the modelling was not done correctly. Still,

2) The essential result that the two simple theories (Theory 1: ants split 50/50 between the food sources; Theory 2: one food source comes to completely dominate) are wrong. While the swings in percentages are not as dramatic as in the journal article, the percentages do continue to change randomly forever.

Re: Take home message
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-11-05 12:49:27
Link to this Comment: 7123

As Mark remarked above, the devil is in the details. But I would argue then that every "theory" will always be wrong.

Theories (as I would define them) are about abstractions. But because the essence of what makes the theory work (given that we're tallking about some emergent phenomenom) is in the details, then there will always be details that the theory doesn't deal with but could effect in a serious way the outcome.

But if we still want to use the word theory, then we'll always just have to remember that theories have a set of associated assumptions, and that it only applies there.

More importantly, in my opinion, is that there will never be a theory that will be an explanation of an emergent phenomenom. Abstractions will never capture the exact mechanisms of an emergent system.


theory and ... ?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-11-11 14:46:43
Link to this Comment: 7198

Rich session this morning. Thanks to Anne and everybody else involved in the conversation.

A quick thought growing from it and Doug's comment following Mark's posting:

Theory = "story", and both ALWAYS have the property that they will eventually prove to be inadequate descriptors of observable phenomena (see Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way and A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century: Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together).

Hence, the key question when one first hears a story should not be, is it wrong? That it will eventually be shown to be is a given. The first question should always be "is it useful? does it take one in new and potentially productive directions?" Once one has figured out the usefulness of a story, THEN one goes on the its limitations (its inevitable "wrongness") in search of the next story (theory).

"Emergence" may, in the abstract, never have a completely explanatory theory (and can't, in fact, if, as we collectively tend to believe, it is constantly generating new and unpredictable observations). On the other hand, aspects of emergence do in fact yield useful theories/stories, as we've been productively engaged in finding out. What seems to me particularly interesting/potentially instructive in the present case is the rhizome/semi-lattice distinction, and its link back to the structure of small world networks.

Fibonaccis and fractals, branches and roots
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-11-11 15:35:12
Link to this Comment: 7210

Thanks, Anne!

I've gardened many roots, but never really thought through their types and formation -- and blanked out temporarilly there on the fact that many roots of course do grow above ground.

Before we move on from the usefulness of the metaphor... In the section of his book on the simple rules that lead to a diversity of branch and leaf shapes, Wolfram focuses on Fibonacci sequences, the regular spiral patterns that occur in plants. Roots don't "look" so regular to us, but aren't they still fractal patterns?

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-11 16:08:46
Link to this Comment: 7211

Most useful new ideas, to me, out of this morning's session, were

Jan's fallen tree, above, is for me a strong image of Tim's mention of the need to look for the place where the current story fails, and cut it off: shades of "death"--remember that conversation? At the moment, it's not the splicing, nor the lateral interconnection of the semi-lattice/small network, but rather the need to minimize interactions, to refuse to efface differentiation-- which is the newest/most "useful" part of the story.

(Shades of that white ant, wandering on her own @ the top of the Netlogo screen.)

professional relationships and individual incentiv
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-13 13:31:48
Link to this Comment: 7248

me again. have just garnered two further rich applications/ramifications of tuesday's talk, the first from Ann Dixon:

the report on a "global social-search experiment in which more than 60,000 e-mail users attempted to reach one of 18 target persons in 13 countries by forwarding messages to acquaintances: We find that successful social search is conducted primarily through intermediate to weak strength ties, does not require highly connected "hubs" to succeed, and . . . disproportionately relies on professional relationships . . . . actual success depends sensitively on individual incentives"

. . . .an illustration (perhaps refinement?) of what we've learned (so far) about what Buchanan (via Paul) called "aristocratic random plus networks."

If you're interested in knowing more:
findings were published in Science Magazine in August, 2003, and are available @ and ;
you can also participate in the new improved version of the experiment now online @

further ramifications
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-13 13:55:58
Link to this Comment: 7249

The second ramification was from/by Jan Trembley. Playing off of Christopher Alexander's theory that "systems are alive based on the quality of order they manifest," she asked me which of her urns I prefered:


A conversation w/ Paul quickly identified the second urn (where I certainly saw the most life) as (something I'd never heard of, but was delighted to learn about): a Klein Bottle. And so I've arrived, easily distracted as always, @ a further refinement to Kim Cassidy's Hoberman's Sphere: a 2-D manifold that can only exist in 4-dimensions...w/ one hole, one handle, no edge, boundary-free...

Talk about emergence.

semilattices and planning
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-11-14 13:45:17
Link to this Comment: 7258

Concerning the diagram in Anne's presentation about traditional societies, where naming friends, acquaintances, relatives, forms a closed "tree," Jan noted to her in an e-mail that many traditionally structured communities (family, village, tribe, etc.) also had marketplaces where people can in fact make overlapping connections through traders from outside.

Anne copied that to Lucy Kerman at Penn, who commented:

"Re marketplaces, the whole idea that we have been following here at Penn, and that I have learned from urban planners-designers-developers, is that mixed-use developments and spaces are the best way to foster a vital urban center that can support a diverse population. So, for example, we have focused on linking home renovation and homeownership to greening and streetscaping, so that private spaces (homes) have warm and inviting (and safe) public spaces (sidewalks, parks); and neighborhood development to public schools. And (and I think this is what Anne is remembering) our work with retail has been holistic: retail is also about safety, so we have looked at market spaces and thought about multiple uses: stores, restaurants, entertainment, arts and culture, residences (stores downstairs, apartments upstairs), greening, public art installations, and ultimately events that link people dynamically -- street fairs, farmer's markets, street music and theater events, etc.

"It's all about how to enliven public spaces, how to get sidewalks to be interactive, how to get art into the streets and have it reflect the diversity of the community, how to appeal to different markets (diversity as in race, age, country-of-origin, class, education, etc) -- even how to reflect that streets have different identities at different times of day and how to have a morning identity (coffee shops and newspapers), an afternoon identity (lunch spots, shopping), and coming-home-from-work identity (take out, restaurants, errands), and an evening identity (clubs, entertainment). Different people at different times, and the same people playing out different parts of their identities at different times. In this sense, it is very much about 'overlapping connections.' And about semilattices.

"My own sense is that the so-called 'scientist/humanist discussions' are in reality part of a much larger discussion, whether posed in oppositions -- academic/non-academic, theoretical/practical -- or, throwing caution to the winds, understanding these issues as broadly human, without discipline or institutional connections at all. How do people approach problems? how do they understand causation? how do things happen and who makes them happen? how does it help us if we understand that? how can we affect human behavior to achieve different ends?"

on urbanism and emergence
Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2003-11-14 13:56:55
Link to this Comment: 7259

Just to present myself publicly and formally, and to thank Anne and Jan for the private conversation that we decided would be better off shared with everyone. My work at Penn concerns community revitalization in West Philadelphia, which covers a lot of sins. I thought Anne's presentation was great fun, and the image of the semi-lattices very resonant with the work that we have been doing here.
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-19 15:50:58
Link to this Comment: 7339

gift from ted to me, need to share w/ all:

thinking about politics and emergence
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-11-23 12:06:33
Link to this Comment: 7372

Have a look at Some Thoughts on Academic Structure (and Socio-Political Structures Generally. Triggered by local matters but has perhaps some broader significance for cities and .... ? Is all about semi-lattices, it occurs to me. Is in any case much informed by our collective conversations. Thanks all.

origins of emergence?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-11-29 10:14:58
Link to this Comment: 7406

Interesting set of thoughts about the history of "emergence" in a recent set of email exchanges triggered by an email to me, Doug, Panama: Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2003 19:37:07 +0100
Subject: Emergent phenomena
From: John Saul

I am looking for the origin of the term "emergent phenomena" and of the concept in case EP was earlier called something else. Who used it first and in what context? Answers welcome, answers with references even more so.
Thanks, John Saul

Doug's reply: Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 11:58:50 -0500
From: "Douglas S. Blank"
Subject: Re: Emergent phenomena

Hi John,

Don't know if someone else replied to you, but our group was originally called "emergent systems" (and still is on some of our sites). Ted Wong suggested that was a bit of a misnomer: it isn't (often) the system that is emergent, but the behavior of the system. Some of us agreed that "emergent phenomena" better describes what we are interested in, so the page:

was created to reflect that. I am not aware of any other official usage, here or elsewhere.

Hope that helps

Ted's reply: Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 14:46:15 -0500 To: John Saul
From: Theodore Wong
Subject: Re: Emergent phenomena

An entry for emergent in the Oxford English Dictionary:

An effect produced by a combination of several causes, but not capable of being regarded as the sum of their individual effects. Opposed to resultant.

1874 LEWES Problems Life & Mind I. 98. 1928 C.E.M. JOAD Future of Life vi. 105 The mind is an 'emergent' upon the combination of two constituents namely the body and what Professor Broad calls the 'psychic factor'. 1936 Nature 28 Mar. 522/2 The system of thought which he [sc. C. Lloyd Morgan] ultimately propounded was what he called a philosophy of evolution, but evolution as meaning the coming into existence of something in some sense new; and this something new, in a specialised sense, he labelled, adopting G.H. Lewes's term, 'emergent', as contrasted with resultant. 1959 Listener 8 Jan. 58/1 When Alexander speaks of 'emergents' he sometimes means qualities which some psychologists nowadays would call the Gestalt properties of ordered systems..but sometimes he means something more like the possibility of a new way of functioning released through a particular kind of ordered structure.

Paul's reply: Date : Wed, 26 Nov 2003 15:16:28 -0500 To:
From: Paul Grobstein
Subject: "emergent systems"

John -

Interesting question. EP was unquestionably called something else earlier. It was "complex systems" in the 1980's-1990's (cf and Before that it was "holism" and "beyond reductionism" (Koestler, 1972). And before that it was ... darwinism and Adam Smith (the "invisible hand"). And before that ... ?

Hope this helps, one way or another. Would be very interested in hearing what else you turn up. If you had any inclination to make it more generally available on Serendip we'd be delighted to talk more.

More from John: Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 21:18:10 +0100
Subject: Re: "emergent systems"
From: John Saul

Paul, thanks for the reply. In a great paper, François Jacob, "Evolution and Tinkering" in Science, vol.196, no.4295 (10 June 1977) pp.1161-1166 uses the term specific term "emergent phenomena". That's just five years after Koestler....

Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 21:27:05 +0100
Subject: Re: Emergent phenomena
From: John Saul

I came to see cancer as an emergent phenomenon. (See: Saul, John M. (1994): "Cancer and Autoimmune disease: A Cambrian couple", Geology, Vol.22, No.1 (Jan. 1994) p.5.) So these days, despite being a geologist, I am consorting with M.D.s.

And more from me: Date: Sat, 29 Nov 2003 9:30:05 +0100
From: Paul Grobstein
Subject: Re: "emergent systems"

John -

Nice to have the Jacob reference. Thanks. Jacques Monod, Jocob's colleague and Nobel prize winning partner, published in 1971 a book called Chance and Necessity that impressed me a lot. I'd bet the emergence idea is in there in one form or another. Hadn't occurred to me that the molecular biology revolution was a likely contributor to contemporary interest in emergence, as the exemplar of a "reductionist" trend it might even seem ironic that it would be, but bet its true. Might be fun to compare Monod/Jacob with comparable writing by Americans writing during that period.

Glad to have your "Cancer and Autoimmune Disease" reference too. I'll see you and raise you one. How about not only cancer and autoimmune disease but also academic politics, terrorism, war as products of emergent systems, with comparable practical implications in all cases? Have a look at War Is a Bad Metaphor and A Biological Metaphor as an Alternative to both States' Rights and Federalism.

Suspect the emergence of emergence is/would be an interesting study in emergence in its own right. Maybe all this a contribution? Delighted to have others join in.

History of Emergence Reading/Reference List
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-12-01 09:52:39
Link to this Comment: 7412


Wasn't sure what the scope of John's original question was, but I'll take this opportunity to point people to the collaboratively-built list on Emergence Readings at:

That includes a section on History of Emergence. Feel free to add to it (including links to 95 page reports).


The Fun Palace
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-12-01 14:51:38
Link to this Comment: 7416

Michelle and I went to Montreal for Thanksgiving. At the Center for Canadian Architecture there's a special exhibition on anti-architecture architects, including a Brit named Cedric Price. In the 1960s, Price collaborated with theater producer Joan Littlewood in planning and designing the Fun Palace. The Fun Palace was conceived as a massive pubic laboratory of fun. The building was to be all frame, no ceiling, and just enough wall to separate activities that required separation. People would enter the palace not through doors but any large space between girders, and they would engage in any activity they liked: conversation, cooking, sex, archery, theater, dance, stargazing, pottery, napping. Activity groups would form and disband with demand, and the configuration of the building would change as needed. The entire Palace would exist only as long as needed, after which it would be dismantled. It was never built -- the planners had trouble finding a suitable site, and presumably there were other difficulties.

The Fun Palace was to be an exercise in the emergence of social structures, and the planners spent quite a lot of energy discussing how best to accomodate and encourage emergence. I saw a report from their "cybernetic committee," which met to discuss the Fun Palace's information infrastructure. This committee was very concerned about how best to make the Fun Palace building flexible and interactive.

Some people have been interested in how the Fun Palace works like a small city. I myself have been wondering whether the WWW is a Fun Palace.

WWW as Fun Palace
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-12-01 17:26:05
Link to this Comment: 7421

Definitely a pubic palace... Sorry, couldn't resist.

pruning "rules"?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-12-03 10:11:42
Link to this Comment: 7437

Thanks so much to Alan for yesterday's presentation on "The Emergence of Everything" (sic). I was particularly interested in/intrigued by the possibility of the existence of "pruning rules"; they seemed to me a very nice next step off from where my talk had stopped, with the observations of my gardening friends about the need, in emergence, not only for sharing information, but for the pruning and cleaning-out-of over-crowded rhizomes...

So/and: I left yesterday's session feeling as though I were still lagging "one frame behind," wondering where the rules for pruning come from, wondering where the rules for generation come from, wondering whether (and how) the latter arise out of the former, the former out of the latter...?

Re: pruning "rules"
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2003-12-03 19:12:01
Link to this Comment: 7451

Yes, thanks Alan, for putting your finger on the critical issues in the "E of E". Looking forward to continuing the discussion next week.

I think that using the phrases "pruning rules" and "generative rules" does not help in trying to understand emergence. To me, the core property of emergent phenomena is that there are no such things as these kinds of rules. Rather, the generative and pruning behaviors are not explicit but can only be found by observing the system in action.

To call them "rules" implies that they are something other than the elements in system, or something other than the interactions of the elements in the system. Which would make one wonder, as Anne pointed out, where do they come from? But a true emergenaut would say that is the wrong question because they emerge, of course!

But there is something going on here: why does it seem that there are rules? That is, why do these emergent levels (like chemistry, or biology) behave as if there are "objects" (like "molecules", or "rabbits") and "rules" for which these "objects" follow? Why are there "levels" at all? In once sense, "biology" and "chemistry" (let alone "economics") don't exist at all.

Are these levels just in our minds? Or, is there something very "real" about them? Why do rabbits follow biological rules (appropriate for the rabbit-level) while molecules follow chemical rules? Why do these rules seem to explain so much behavior of the objects at that level?


Human-interest stories must be about humans
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-12-11 15:12:46
Link to this Comment: 7508

It's not an example of emergence, but it is an example of how some people just have to find a central organizing force to which to attribute causal power. A graduate student named Michael Schafer is credited by >this AP story with finding the largest known Mersenne prime. Really, the guy installed a program on his desktop Dell, adding it to the 200,000-some computers which were all collaboratively searching for the number. Schafer was one of tens of thousands of volunteers for this project, and it just so happened that his was the computer that got happened on the magic number. The headline gives Schafer all the credit: "Student finds largest known prime number," but Schafer is more generous: "I get the credit, along with the people that developed the software."

Oops, here's the link
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-12-11 15:14:07
Link to this Comment: 7509

Here's the link to that AP story:

The Grand Canyon
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2004-01-06 10:52:11
Link to this Comment: 7590

So, I just got back from the Grand Canyon, and Doug will be happy to know that it is all about emergence. The Grand Canyon is, of course, the mother of all erosion landscapes, but it differs from most and not just in size. The story behind most erosion landscapes is that the pre-erosion surface contained rocks of different degrees of hardness and that the water ultimately erodes the softer rocks. I'll leave it to Doug and Paul as to whether this is an example of emergence; but if it is, it is not very interesting - it's obvious. The interesting thing about the Grand Canyon is that the rock at any given level is identical and that it is uniformly spread horizontally across the landscape. Therefore, there is no particular reason for erosion to occur anywhere; yet, as you all know, there are countless mesa's, hilltops, valleys and canyons within the Grand Canyon. Erosion in the Grand Canyon is due, as far as I can tell, exclusively to "positive feedback". Streams of water start eroding the surface somewhere, but unlike most erosion surfaces, this initial erosion could be anywhere, and no particular spot erodes any faster than any other spot. So, Voila after a gazillion years, you have hundreds of canyons which could have been anywhere else on the surface (ie. where the hilltops now are) except for positive feedback. Unlike most erosion landscapes, which are predetermined by the composition of their rocks, the Grand Canyon is historically contingent.

The Grand Canyon also differs from other places in terms of a book I picked up entitled, "Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon", which as the title implies is about death, a subject of interest to our seminar. The book chronicles hundreds of candidates for the Darwin Award, and since evolution is a prime example of emergence, it relates to our seminar in that way as well.

Not so hasty, Mark!
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-07 14:16:52
Link to this Comment: 7592

Grand Canyon is not the result of emergence, at least according to the National Park Service. Check out item #4 here.

projections, quantum fluctuations, chaos ...
Name: Al Albano
Date: 2004-01-08 14:23:49
Link to this Comment: 7593

Happy New Year! I thought y'all might find the following interesting. The full article is in



It is possible, I suppose, that ... in the end, the vision of a unique, deterministic Universe fully accessible to rational analysis, championed by Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein, will be restored. But to me it seems wise to accept what appears to be overwhelming evidence that projection, quantum uncertainty, and chaos are inherent in the nature of things, and to build on those insights. With acceptance, new constructive principles appear, supplementing pure logical deduction from fine-grained analysis as irreducible explanations of observed phenomena.

By accepting the occurrence of projection, we license anthropic explanations. How do we understand why Earth is at the distance it is from the Sun, or why our sun is the kind of star it is? Surely important insights into these questions follow from our existence as intelligent observers. Some day, we may be able to check such arguments by testing their predictions for exobiology.

By accepting quantum uncertainty, we license, well . . . quantum mechanics. Specifically, in the spirit of this column, we can test the hypothesized quantum origin of primordial fluctuations by checking whether those fluctuations satisfy statistical criteria for true randomness.

By accepting the implications of chaos, broadly defined, we license evolutionary explanations. Outstanding examples include an explanation of why the Moon always faces us due to the long-term action of tidal friction, and of the structure of gaps in the asteroid belt due to resonance with planetary periods. Also from considerations internal to the program of analysis and synthesis, we motivate the search for emergent properties of complex systems that Philip Anderson has advocated under the rubric "More is different." For these emergent properties can form the elements of robust descriptions--they transcend the otherwise incapacitating sensitivity to initial conditions.

In constructing explanations based on anthropics, randomness, and dynamical evolution, we must use intermediate models incorporating many things that can't be calculated. Such necessary concessions to reality compromise the formal purity of the ideal of understanding the world by analysis and synthesis, but in compensation, they allow its spirit much wider scope.


Frank Wilczek is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Emergence and the World Process
Name: Dr. A.B. K
Date: 2004-01-09 01:56:11
Link to this Comment: 7594

What is an Emergent?

There appears to be considerable confusion as to just what constitutes an Emergent. I have proposed clear criteria for Emergents.

Chapter 6 of my book "The Process of the Cosmos" (1999), is headed "Emergence and the World Process". In this Chapter I discuss the work of a number of Emergent Evolutionists. I distinguish emergents from developments on the basis that "at each emergent level new entities come into being, together with new laws which apply to those entities". (1999,89) I also propose clear criteria of Emergent Levels. I propose the adoption by this list of those criteria.

Review of Peter Corning's book
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-11 20:50:09
Link to this Comment: 7598

A short review of Peter Corning's book Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind is here. The reviewer, bigwig evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson, didn't think much of it, and his complaint sounds similar to Karen's. An excerpt:
To say that synergy is (nearly) everywhere is to say (nearly) nothing. It is precisely because the world is so complex that we need theories to avoid becoming overwhelmed by it. These theories are invariably simpler than the world itself. They partially succeed and their failures are used to add complexity as needed. This kind of theory building to comprehend complexity is hard work and having someone insist again and again that the world is complex is no help at all.

Re: Emergence and the World Process
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2004-01-12 10:39:34
Link to this Comment: 7599

Dr. A.B. Kelly said:

I distinguish emergents from developments on the basis that "at each emergent level new entities come into being, together with new laws which apply to those entities". (1999,89) I also propose clear criteria of Emergent Levels. I propose the adoption by this list of those criteria.

I think that most of us would like to use something like that as a definition, although we would probably require that you add something about the interactions between the levels. But for your definition to be any good, you need to define:

And thus the problem with your definition. Maybe you'd like to list your list and definitions here for a discussion?

Emergence is everywhere and nowhere
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2004-01-12 11:10:42
Link to this Comment: 7600

I haven't read Corning's book yet, but I have no problem seeing emergence everywhere, even in the Grand Canyon :). Emergence is ubiquitous. But at the same time it is unique.

I see the universe as the instance (and definition) of emergent systems. It exists because it is an emergent system, and everything in it is bound by its emergent properties. In one sense, it doesn't make any sense to try to find something in it that isn't emergent. Can't do it. One can't separate the emergent parts from the non-emergent parts.

On the other hand, I have been unable to make a simulation that has such properties. If I'm lucky, I can make a system that has a bit of emergence to it, but even then you have to squint a little, and it appears to be only two levels and missing many of the properties we're interested in.

We can have a Theory of Everything for emergence, but it will tell you how to build a simulation that ends up being a universe. But it may not fit David Sloan Wilson's definition of a model. He says in the review:

...It is precisely because the world is so complex that we need theories to avoid becoming overwhelmed by it. These theories are invariably simpler than the world itself. ...

I don't think such "a theory of emergence" will be truly emergent (and won't tell us how to build an emergent system). On the other hand, a simulation with true emergent properties won't be any easier to understand than our universe is. But that is still my goal.

Emergence and the Process of the Cosmos
Name: Anthony Ke
Date: 2004-01-13 04:44:42
Link to this Comment: 7604


Perhaps you could look at Chapter 6 of "The Process". It is available on my Web Page at


this one's for ted
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-01-27 21:13:27
Link to this Comment: 7791

...don't know what the rest of you guys are thinking about tonight, but i'm of course looking for lessons in the snowflakes. as per y'day's (1/26/04) phila inquirer article on the topic:

"The central question is how staggeringly complex and symmetrical snowflakes arise spontaneously from simple physical systems....this research is part of a larger field of physics called pattern formation, which has matured in the last 20 years...The research...can also help solve practical problems. Learning about instabilities in pattern formation, for example, can help aircraft engineers avoid weak spots as they solidfy metal into a wing...[there are] a flurry of questions: Where do the various prisms and plates and needles come from? Why are they symmetrical? Why do snowflake needles grow only at certain temperatures? How can we not know that?...It's the 21st century..."

on snowflakes, but not from Ted
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-01-28 17:51:34
Link to this Comment: 7803

I'm thinking that snowflakes are not complex adaptive systems; they're just complicated. Are they emergent systems if they can be shown to be cellular automata?

Norman Packard was a physicist working with Stephen Wolfram at the Institute for Advanced Study, and chose to apply information theory to cellular automata to emulate snowflakes.

He reasoned that firstly, it was not the case that every snowflake was identical. However, if every snowflake had a random structure, the information from each snowflake would be meaningless. Therefore, there is a syntax within snowflakes, several main types of structures, which are capable of containing individual variations - this is the richest form of propagating information and is found in human languages as well as biological reproduction.

Packard discovered that different weather conditions result in snowflakes taking on different general aspects. One set of conditions yields configurations that look like plates, another determines snowflakes shaped like collections of rods, and another yields dendritic stars. He wrote a cellular automaton simulation in which the off cells, those with a value of "0", represented water vapour, and the on cells, those assigned a value of "1", represented ice, and appeared on the screen in colour. The snowflake would grow outwards from its boundary. A typical set of rules initiated a scan of a cell's neighbourhood, summed the values of the surrounding cells, and filled the new cells with either ice or water vapour, depending on whether the total was odd or even.

The resulting artificial snowflakes lacked the complexity of real snowflakes, particularly those with structures based on patterns of needle-like shapes - but they did have plates and dendrites growing from the corners of the plates, from which more dendrites grew; they were easily idenfiable as snowflakes.

Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-28 21:28:18
Link to this Comment: 7810

I once saw a t-shirt on a shuttle bus at Stanford: "Language is a snowflake, not a giraffe's neck."

ubiquitous = useless
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-29 10:08:38
Link to this Comment: 7815

By the way, I'm not sure how the notion got ascribed to me that if everything is emergent then emergence isn't interesting. I do believe that, but I think of it as coming from Alan's brief discussion of trivial and vacuous definitions in his book report on The Emergence of Everything.

If ants had iPods
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-29 10:31:10
Link to this Comment: 7816

A file-sharing program built around an ant algorithm:

snowflakes and language
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-01-29 10:48:44
Link to this Comment: 7817

I wish people around here wore T-shirts like that. It is argued that language ability was not designed into the brain by evolution but emerged, superimposed on a brain and parts of that brain, to process input from the world. But did the giraffe's neck evolve to assist in eating leaves from tall trees, or was it the length of the giraffe's neck that evolved to take on a new job after the neck had evolved to do the work of necks?

Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-29 17:03:51
Link to this Comment: 7822

Interesting! I guess I think it's the length that evolves. Any given neck doesn't evolve. And as for "the neck," meaning all the necks along the timeline, maybe it evolves but what is it? Hmm.

neck nitpick
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-29 17:06:01
Link to this Comment: 7823

But whatever it was, it didn't evolve to help the giraffe reach leaves. It just evolved because greater length allowed some giraffes to reach leaves.

Steven Johnson's new book
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-02-02 11:55:52
Link to this Comment: 7897

Here's what Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) has to say about his new book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life:
Read it and learn about: 1) why I am afraid of the sound of wind, 2) why Freud still matters (kind of), 3) why Tiger Woods is so good at golf, and 4) about a hundred other things about your own brain that you didn't know already. (And a hundred others about my brain that you may not want to know.) Seriously, it's a fun read. Maybe even a beach read, as long as it's Brighton Beach in mid-January.

Tipping points
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-02-04 12:50:14
Link to this Comment: 7963

Kieran Healy wonders why fewer and fewer kids walk to school and ends up writing a medium-length post at the blog Crooked Timber about tipping points as explanations for social phenomena. He thinks the models are interesting but don't tell the real story (for which you need data):
But lovely as these models are, we know empirically that many phenomena that can be formulated as tipping processes do not, in fact, happen in that way. Neighborhood racial segregation, for instance, has historically been actively enforced and collectively sustained, and is not simply the unpleasant byproduct of innocuous choices. Similarly, social movements that successfully propagate ideas or initiate collective action tend not to rely on contagion but are usually very well organized.

Kerry Emerges
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2004-02-11 08:01:46
Link to this Comment: 8114

Like me, some of you may be surprised at how quickly the race for the democratic presidential nomination has condensed from a formless mass into an apparent winner. The reason is positive feedback. It is well known that only the party faithful show up at primaries. This means that candidates generally have to appeal to the more left (for democrats) or right (for republicans) elements of the electorate to win the primaries. Then, at the nominating convention, the winner moves to the center. But this year is different because the democratic primary voters dislike George Bush so much that their prime concern is who can best beat George Bush, as opposed to who most reflects their own views or who they like most. This is a recipe for tremendous positive feedback because no one really knows who can beat George Bush and the only evidence is who wins the primaries. People then vote for the candidate who they think other people will support. In Britain, they have, or had, a beauty contest where the goal of the judges was, not to decide who was the most beautiful, but who the other judges thought was the most beautiful. Keynes analogized the behavior of the stock market to this contest, and you can see how it can lead to speculative bubbles. In a primary process like this, small initial victories can snowball very quickly into a final outcome.

The press initially depicted the Dean campaign as an emergent phenomena (and the recruits to the campaign were an example of emergence). The problem was that the Iowa voters (prior to the" I have a scream" speech) didn't like the Deaniacs very much. So, this is a campaign where an emergent process among the voters beat out an emergent process among a candidates volunteers.

a follow up
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-02-25 17:31:30
Link to this Comment: 8496

Emerging Emergence, A Report on Progress (October 2002-present): From the Active Inanimate to Models to Stories to Agency (and Back Again) has evolved. See The Story of Evolution: Whence Cometh Purpose/Meaning/Language/Choice/Morality/Altruism/Comfort? (or do we just forget about them?)

Thanks to all for contributions. Germane to our continuing conversation is that the second transition, from model builders to story tellers is actually two transitions: first from model builders to non-verbal story tellers and then from those to language-based story tellers. "Agency" appears with the former, as did "thinking" (hence both without language) Next set of questions (explorations in progress, with hints in second link above):

Small towns and big cities
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-02-26 17:52:07
Link to this Comment: 8531

Recommendation: this very nice essay by Brian Hayes in the current issue of American Scientist about modeling the spatial distribution of small towns and big cities.

and on ....
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-03-07 12:46:05
Link to this Comment: 8715

Rich presentation by Tim/discussion by all last week, building on earlier efforts to figure out, as per Doug, what we've learned in a year and a half.

A few thoughts, for my own use and anyone else's:

Like very much the "problem" Jim presented, of cultural history as oscillations, with take off points for new structures. Seems to me that our earlier discussion of networks can indeed help make sense of this, both the collapse as things get over-extended and the "take off" events when a new stability has been discovered. Like the addition of a stigmergic effect, ie that oscillations are not complete collapses but instead leave for further exploration some new things to build on. And like, very much, the idea following from Tim's presentation, that there is room in this kind of cultural change pattern for the individual unique/intended to play a significant causal role in cultural change.

Also found very useful Tim's enunciation of two "problems":

  1. Is "newness" phony because it is inherent in the "starting conditions"?
  2. Where is individual agency?

Have been myself wrestling with both of these in a separate arena, a course on The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories (with its own interesting on-line forum), as per my earlier note. For a further update on where I've been wandering, see Dennett's Ideas (Dangerous and Otherwise) About Evolution and Life. The book on which this is based, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, might well be worth some conversation in our group. Dennett makes a distinction between "cranes" and "skyhooks" that is, I think of use to us.

In any case, I'm inclined, re 1) to join Ted/Tim in discomfort at systems where one can legitimately say that the starting point defines the potential outcomes. My guess is that is not in fact the case with evolution (as it is not with genes as the initial conditions for individual ontogeny). Better I think to say that the initial conditions ALLOW the outcome, but that there is no way to enumerate at the outset all possible outcomes, even in principle. There is a very subtle issue here, one that relates to a Dennett assumption that Wolfram is right: that all possible outcomes are forms of organized matter and hence enumerable at the beginning. In this way of thinking, nothing is genuinely "new".

My own sense is that with the combination of randomness, successive levels of organization, and a special kick at the end given by brains, one does in fact have a situation in which NEW things are created. Furthermore, I'm 99% sure I can make this argument compellingly (not PROVE it, but tell it as a story at least as compelling as the Dennett/Wolfram story and perhaps more so).

2) is a significant step in this story. Randomness and a peculiar "bipartite" architecture of the brains of humans (and perhaps some other fuzzy animals) does, as I've argued elsewhere, give one a genuine, matter-based, "free will" ... , as well as a special kind of "intentionality", and hence "agency". The interesting problem is that this is so IFF 1) is so and 1) is so IFF 2) is so. And it implies that there is a category of things that affect the organization of matter but are not themselves matter. Can we swallow that? Cranes built of matter can bring into existence skyhooks that transcend matter?

Looking forward to seeing where we go next ...

More Notes on Serres, Time and Noise....
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-12 09:03:06
Link to this Comment: 8730

Jim's long letter (which I hope will show up soon in this forum?) using Michel Serres' language to re-describe our recent conversations about the cyclic emergence of cultures put me in mind of two other local discussions, both in the Brown Bag series, which may be of interest to the rest of you. The first of these was a conversation led by Kathy Rowe in Oct. 02 on "Science, Culture and Time" which took as its starting point Serres' meditations on "layered temporalities" (time as "pleated"or "warped"). The second, "What Is Information?" was also led by Kathy this semester, and although it didn't step off explictely from Serres' work, it did play insistently w/ the notion Jim describes of "noise" as the source for what is new, the place where meaning we haven't yet recognized may arise, if we know how to attend. In "The Origin of Language," Serres speaks quite strikingly about successive levels of interpretation, in which each level functions as a "rectifier" or "filter" integrating what is "noise" on the level below into "information" on the next one up...sure sounds like emergence to me.

Looking forward to picking up on all of this next week--


Jim's comments
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2004-03-14 11:40:01
Link to this Comment: 8734

[This was Jim's note sent to the emergence mailing list. Hope it is ok to post. -Doug]

In the Mellon Trico emergence group Stephen Finley gave us some readings that are very relevant to these issues and to those you have been pursuing-- notably Michel Serres, Hermes, 1982, edited by J. Harari and D. Bell, Johns Hopkins Press, Chapter 7 "The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics" and also William Paulson, The Noise of Culture, Literary Texts in a World of Transformation, Cornell 1988, pp. 66-100 ---among others.

Anyway I have tried to reformulate some of the issues I raised using some of the terms of Serres. These are syrrhesis (flowing together) and diarrhesis (flowing apart), words that describe systems in dynamic rather than homeostatic terms.

The loss of information as a message is received and understood and then acted upon and re-transmistted creates disorder with any system--creates diarrhesis within syrrhesis. This disorder when amplified among many like- minded members of a community creates change. Governors may exist within the community (rules that reduce noise) to help it maintain equilibrium, but change will occur nonetheless. Some of the noise will contain meaningful information when heard from another perspective or state. Therefore there will always exist the probability of an actor acting upon an understanding of noise and transmitting new messages about that meaning which create new information in a changed state.

Because humans process information and retain it as memory and because through their sensory observations, use of memory, and reflection upon these as thought, they are always integrating and reintegrating messages towards more complex (in the sense of more integrated) levels of understanding. Thus more noise creates higher more complex levels of integration.

Instability and collapse of social systems occurs when the noise levels exceed the ability of the group to process them, to reintegrate them and respond to them in ways that maintain the system, that is when diarrhesis exceeds syrrhesis, such that the system is configured primarily by diarrhesis and uncomprehended (unheard?) noise.

What are these conditions? They are when entropy exceeds negentropy (that is of course always the case, but not from the narrow perceptions of humans in history). It is when disorder exceeds order, when decisions necessary to maintain order are in excess of the integrative capacity. This means for societies when the technologies of culture are inadequate to account for and control the information coming into the system, including the perturbations.

Abstract technologies such as mathematics manage the system up to a point, beyond that new mathematics (e.g. zero, multiplication, calculus) has to be invented. The same is true for mechanical technologies: there is a difference of course between the mechanics of animal drawn devices and that of the steam engine and that of the nuclear engine. The same is true for information technologies: writing, the printing press, electricity and transmission of coded signals.

Culture and the technologies of culture NEVER collapse back to a previous state, as time is never reversible. Collapse is simply increased diarrhesis along the ever-coursing trajectory of time. For humans, memory and knowledge, however fragmented by diarrhesis remains as a message that can be re-understood, reintegrated and reformulated and retransmitted through myth, legend and history. Thus the irretrievable past along with ideologies about perfect forms, both in the past and in the formal abstract and in the achievable future are transmitted through periods of diarrhesis and amplified into new messages and new technologies that lead again to new and sometimes more complex levels of integration. This knowledge of the past and these ideologies about nature and intention and the agency of volition (and eros) lead to new integrations and often to technologies that can be more successful than previous ones in managing information and excess noise.

This process has a natural thermodynamic momentum that, because of its reliance on mechanical and electrical (artificial) engines consumes much more energy and generates much more noise (as spent heat, as exhaust) than it produces as meaningful message. This is how local ecological imbalances occur, whether rapid slope degradation after the deforestation of the Neolithic in Greece ca 3000-2600 B.C.E. or the more massive global warming of today. And this is why we quest for new more efficient technologies, especially those that manage more information, transmit and receive it sensibly using less energy: biomechanical engines, bioengineering, cloning, etc.

The transmission of messages and the maintainence of syrrhesis by human societies is the more successful the more redundant the message. Redundancy increases message clarity by creating patterns. The increased frequency by which a message is broadcast reaches more people and reemphasizes the same symbolic sets in different settings. Humans proliferate communicative devices through speech, song, signs from hands, face and body, made signs from manufacts of clothing and scarification of the flesh and tattoos and clothing of all sorts. Messages are made from all kinds of objects: inscribed in earthworks, carved into stone, built into structures, shaped into paths and built environments, painted onto all kinds of objects large and small. The knowledge of these systems is transmitted from generation to generation and from group to group, and it can cut across social group, communities, languages, etc. in a patterned way that, though it will change and be reinterpreted, can be made through its incessant redundancy to be channeled successfully against time's thermodynamic arrow. Where are we going with the cellphone and the internet? towards greater diarrhesis because of the increased noise or towards greater syrrhesis because of the increased redundancy?

just some thoughts late at night.

Professor James C. Wright, Chair, Department of Classical
Office : 610-526-5340. Fax: 610-526-7955

Characterizing complex networks
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-03-15 10:04:26
Link to this Comment: 8744

There's a cool article (Milo R. et al. 2004. Superfamilies of evolved and designed networks. Science 303:1538-42.) in the March 5 Science which characterizes some of the topological features of different kinds of complex networks. Milo et al. compare against randomly generated networks the abundances of different simple connectivity motifs. They find the existence of superfamilies of networks, which share not only these motif abundances but also functions. Biological signal-transduction netoworks are similar in their motif abundances, WWW and several personal-acquaintance networks share a different set of abundances, and word-adjacency matrices of texts in different natural languages share yet another set. It's interesting reading, and it makes much more sense than does my short summary. The math is very simple, and the particulars aren't especially essential to the study.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-04-01 09:42:00
Link to this Comment: 9111

Wonderfuly rich presentation by Anne this morning. Seems to me that that, along with other talks this semester, clearly validates Doug's original idea that there could well be a book in this. Doug? pull it together into a proposal?

A reminder ... if everyone will register for the Keep Me Posted feature on this forum then the forum could fill both the listserv and the archiving functions simultaneously. Just write here and everyone will get an email to come see and what was written, and what is written will simultaneously be archived (creating a record not only of what individuals say but of what we are collectively doing) and made available to others beyond the immediate community. The latter in turn will benefit us all both individually and collectively

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Revived
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-01 11:24:27
Link to this Comment: 9112

Thanks to all fronds-and-anemones (you know who you are) for past and current contributions to my thinking; I also think we've got a book a-borning here, and would be delighted to put some energy, this summer, into sending 'round a prospectus, etc. (Jan--want to give us a good editorial hand?)

After my talk (for an instance of further thinking), Mark was musing about the (currently particularly fertile?) phenomena of the production of new texts in which minor characters from old texts are brought to center stage. His mention of Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a particular version of this put me in mind of a staging of that play I saw @ the Arden last fall (and recorded, handily, on the Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience Forum), which turns out (interestingly/ retrospectively) to also be a great demonstration of the unpredictable interaction both of conscious and unconscious and of two (themselves doubled) selves.

In other words: Emergence as Understood by a Feminist Humanist.
But that's....
another chapter.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-15 10:46:13
Link to this Comment: 9380

Thank you, Mark, for this morning's interesting (because so useful. because so clarifying) presentation of what the landscape might look like "On Beyond Canonical Emergence." I want to make a footnote/further clarification here. When I called attention to Adam Smith's phrase, "led by an invisible hand..." I was NOT at all asking for "indulgence" in my own "spiritual inclinations." What I was trying to get to was the observation that Adam Smith, one of the early guys to identify emergent phenomenon, was, in 1776, still looking to find an explanation for the connection between intention and outcome in a designer/architect/planner. I agree that his "invisible hand" works as a stand-in for the mystery of how a second level emerges from a first that does not intend it, for Smith's not understanding yet how emergence could produce something optimal w/out being designed for effectiveness, and that the image gestures toward a research objective, by describing a space/process that requires explanation. Akin to what happens in a classroom, when you show kids The Game of Life and/or Langton's Ant, and invite them to see/think about organization in the absence of "intent," purposive behavior in the absence of purpose. They go: "Wow. What just happened? How do i make sense of what I am seeing?" As one of the students, Katherine Pioli, said, in response to Paul's presentation in our class on "The Story of Evolution, "

"there were rules to the game, specific rules to identify which dots should turn red and which green. and a man, who ever designed the game, created these rules. so it did not occur without some greater guidance. and are we to believe, similarly, that in the very beginning, beginning, beginning, that this game of elements and plants and stars and evolution started without any thing to set the rules or create the rules. Is there after all something that set this all in motion and then let random chance take over....this is earth shaking to me."

that smooth stone
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-04-15 11:32:15
Link to this Comment: 9381

Sorry, but I can't bring myself to put down that river-smoothed stone. Here are the questions that are currently shaping (but not smoothing) my thinking about it: I myself come down on the side of mechanism. Since intended and unintended events can be indistinguishable to an observer, I think intention is outside what can be dealt with in science.

And anyway, I wouldn't want to put all unintended events in the same category. Within that category there would still be some things whose mechanisms have to do with dcentralized local interactions uninformed by global patterns, and some things whose mechanisms don't. That distinction would be the one that interests me, and it would interest me partly because it would be likely to thwart intention.

If a designer (say, a crop geneticist) wanted to create a plant with particular architectural traits, she would have difficulty because between her design and a real plant stands the plant's architectural-developmental process. If architecture is emergent, then the designer will have a difficult time figuring out which particular set of rules corresponds to her design -- because in my understanding of emergence, there exists no understandable relationship between rule-set and architecture other than a two-column look-up table (and no way to produce the table other than through simulation ). That there are so many surprising phenomena suggests that for some phenomena, simulation is the only way to approximate understanding. The necessity of simulation is a very big deal, because it constrains what can be achieved by the traditional modes of scientific inquiry.

And this challenge to traditional science is all about mechanism. The foiled crop geneticist would not have been foiled if plants developed by a more centralized mechanism, even though the relationship between her design and the finished plant would have been the same.

Last Night's Physics Lecture and Stones of the Riv
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2004-04-16 11:56:26
Link to this Comment: 9400

Last night's Physics lecture at Haverford was interesting on at least two dimensions:

1) It relates directly to the intentions issue that Ted has brought up. Basically, the kind of emergence that was presented in the lecture is one in which physicists create very artificial environments in which unexpected patterns emerge. They then study the why and how of these patterns. Some appear naturally in nature - like the ruffled edges of some leaves, but most require a laboratory (which can be as simple as a frying pan with oil and water) for the phenomena to appear.

So, people are very actively intending these patterns to emerge (just as Ted's jeweler). Despite my Adam Smith quote, I agree with Ted that intentions are neither here nor there. What unites these phenomena is that there is some kind of local interaction between the agents which results in the pattern or the "something". "Intention " is simply a stand-in word (like Invisible Hand) to connote the fact that the local interaction does not map in a simple way into the pattern. You cannot, from observing the local interaction, intuit what the pattern will be. In fact, as in market economics, the pattern, which in this case is an allocation of resources from which you cannot make someone better off, without making someone else worse off (ie economic efficiency), can be precisely the opposite of what you would intuit from the local interaction of greedy self-interested people. Alternatively, if people routinely say "good morning" to one another, "exchange of pleasantries" is not an emergent phenomenon - the local interaction IS the pattern.

2) In all of the examples presented in the Physics lecture, the system is artificially stressed in order for the emergent phenomena to appear. So, the natural state of the system (the equilibrium) has no emergent phenomena. It is only when the system has energy put into it (by stirring, heating, ripping, pushing up and down) that it moves far from its rest equilibrium and patterns appear. If not enough energy is put into the system and it only moves a little away from its rest equilibrium, no patterns appear. It interesting to me that we, in our breakfast group, almost never discuss emergence in this way. I think it is due to the fact that the group is dominated by biologists and computer scientists (but not in a bad way), but I am not sure.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-28 16:21:46
Link to this Comment: 9667

I somehow doubt that this will be an issue in tomorrow morning's discussion of robots' desire-to-explore, but I did want-- for the record--to record something/correct a misunderstanding/ask to have something explained I think I'm not quite understanding.

As I remember it, one of Al's slides last week juxtaposed Von Neumann's (was it?) injunction to "regard the world as information, and matter and energy as incidentals," w/ the assertion (from John, in the New Testament) that "In the beginning was the Word."

[Al said the second phrase was "for Anne"--and I wanted to reply that I don't much relish being the standard repository/affiliate of religious ways of making sense of the world (particularly in this group). What I do like about religion is the way it encourages seeking/testing/looking for what Quakers call "continuing revelation"; what I don't like is the dogma. So: thanks but no thanks.]

More importantly: I was unclear whether Al was proposing that we consider these two phrases in opposition to one another (which makes sense to me), or as parallel/identical/congruent--which makes less sense. I've been assuming that emergence was all about NOT beginning w/ "the word" (=architect, planner, designer; for which see ), in which case--if matter is NOT organized in accord w/ prior principles--"information" is not at all equivalent to "beginning w/ the word."


What exists in the beginning?
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2004-04-28 21:18:18
Link to this Comment: 9673

I hope that tomorrow's discussion can be seen as not just about robots, but about an exploration as to what one needs to start with in order to create an ever-emerging, unfolding universe/system.

These systems can be examined by thinking about what are the bare essentials with which to start that will lead to "something emerging". Like the search for a Grand Unified Theory in Physics (and discussions about the instant before/during/after the big bang), we what to find those primitive components (rules/laws/particles) for intelligence/consciousness: what do we need to put in our robots to start with so that they become smart?

I don't argee with Paul about his designer distinction (ie, it's not emergence if it is designed). We are definitely designing the "laws" of the universe in the robot brain. But we are designing them so that emergent intelligence is nearly inevitable.

So, the initial starting conditions are critical. Our universe had the right stuff from the beginning, which is why I find it hard not to find emergence in most things in the natural world. On the other hand, simulated worlds rarely have the right stuff, and have very limited emergent properties.

Could a universe like ours not end up with all of the emergent complexity that ours has? I don't think it could. And thus the Third Law (or should that be the Fourth, Al?): local organization is necessary to balance the global entropy... or something like that.


Truly random numbers
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-05-26 14:32:21
Link to this Comment: 9982

Truly random -- not pseudorandom -- numbers are available at Enjoy!

modelling and humans
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-06-10 12:32:12
Link to this Comment: 10095

Thanks to Bruce/Tim for another provocative/productive discussion. A few notes/thoughts for myself, whomever else might find them useful.

Do very much think the "counterfactual" mindset is a valuable one in history , as elsewhere (see Getting It Less Wrong Together and Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way). And do think that modelling can be/is an appropriate tool both to encourage and to support that mindset.

Do, at the same time, think its important to keep in mind that the principal significant use of models is to explore how little one needs to account for a particular phenomenon rather than to be "realistic" (see tips re modelling).

The counterfactual mindset can be useful whether or not one has a model as a complementary tool (Stephen J. Gould's image of rerunning the tape of evolution helps biologists criticize existing understandings and pose new questions). At the same time there is a clear precedent for the significance of counterfactual modelling from cosmological research into how to account for observed distributions of matter/energy in the universe.

The cosmological research certainly validates Gould's (and Tim's intution ) that it is useful to think in terms not of simple determinate cause/effect relationships but rather in terms of lots of interacting components from which certain phenomena arise not inevitably but rather with particular probabilities. The ensemble of cases needed to establish probabilities may be produced either by some variation in starting conditions (probabilistic or otherwise) in a deterministic model (its my impression that the cosmological models have this character), or by putting some indeterminacy into the agents/rules of interactions, ie into the model itself (as in most "emergence models", eg Segregation/Integration).

For me, its important in thinking about models, particularly ones related to humans, to distinguish between "indeterminacy"/"surprise" (in the above sense) and ... individuality/agency (as in the "great (wo)man" issue in history). It is relatively easy to observe "indeterminacy" in lots of situations (non-human and human) and relatively easy to model situations with indeterminacy. This may indeed yield cases in which one agent (model "human") proves to be critical for a particular outcome (in the sense that that outcome has high probability when the individual agent is present and low probability when it is absent). But this, I would argue, is not the deepest part of what is at issue in the "great (wo)man" discussion.

At the core of the "great (wo)man" controversy is the issue of whether individual agents (humans) have as individuals

THIS, I contend, is the deepest part of what one means by "agency". The question is not only whether an individual was distinctively important (in the sense defined above) but whether that distinctive importance was a product of "intention".

In the present context, the relevance of all this is that it relates to the question of how to specify the properties of agents and interactions in creating counter-factual models useful for thinking about history. One can indeed (and perhaps inevitably does) adopt a "boot-strap" approach: start with what one suspects to be important properties/forms of interactions, see what happens, add/remove and compare what happens with previous cases. Its a difficult sell to a grant review panel but has a reasonable likelihood of yielding something interesting if one pursues it long enough.

A difficulty in the case of modelling human agents as opposed to matter/energy in the universe is that the ensemble of conceivably relevant properties/interactions is vastly larger in the former than in the latter case. This is the "complexity" problem, and I certainly share Bruce's curiousity about whether one gets "phase shifts" as one increases "complexity", ie adds additional properties/forms of iteractiion. My intuition/guess though is that the essence of what is interesting about history specificially isn't the "complexity" problem but the "agency" problem. If so, a particular set of properties that agents will have to have are those associated with a "bipartite brain", ie "a sense of the current state ... etc" (as above).

Trusting the project will proceed, I'll look forward to seeing whether my intution holds, ie whether there is some fundamental difference between the behavior of groups of agents when those properties that constitute "agency" are present as opposed to absent, a difference over and above that associated with "complexity" in the sense of large numbers of properties/interactions.

dumber, smarter, and the usefulness of models in e
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-06-11 11:49:16
Link to this Comment: 10096

So...did I miss something here?
Assuming that the "deepest problem" is not that of complexity, but rather what difference individual agency (actually, I guess it's individual intention) makes in what happens, then....
I don't get how models (whose value lies in the exploration of how little one needs to account for a particular phenomenon) can help us get @ the "core" of what matters.

I've been in e-conversation lately w/ Ro. Finn (a McBride who comes here w/ lots of experience in the corporate world, and w/ it considerable knowledge about group dynamics); most recently, we've been discussing a NYT review of a new book on The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, a financial columnist who argues (contra Freud's claim in Group Psychology that the power for rational thought is dwarfed in groups, that the crowd is considerably dumber than its smartest members) that people in large groups are better informed, more rational than any single member, and can better handle a range of problems. Evidence Surowiecki marshals to support his argument are studies about our "pro social tendencies" (vs. the assumption that each of us is a "monad" for whom social interactions are a "means of self-aggrandizement").

According to the reviewer, Surowiecki's a capitalist who thinks of the market as a mechanism for translating the wisdom of crowd into optimal results--not exactly where I locate my interests. But the review certainly suggests that lots of Surowiecki's thinking accords w/ what's been going on in both this group and the new one on (the "relation" we're calling?) information...

So: what I'm puzzling over today is what factors might be key in making the result of group-wide interactions "smarter" (=more effective) than individual acts are (the core concept in emergence), rather than "dumber" (as per earlier, Freudian, doomsday-sort-of-work in group psychology). And whether the modeling program Bruce and Tim hope to get funded by the Human Social Dynamics folks @ NSF can help us get @ that?

self-organized criticality in the brain... who wou
Name: geoff (hc
Date: 2004-06-14 05:00:18
Link to this Comment: 10105

i have had some trouble posting this so i apologize for any double postings. i am determined to get this through...

hello emergent people,

my name is geoff pollitt and i attended some of the earlier emergent group meetings through last summer, tapering off when the 2003-2004 academic year got a hold of me. i am recently an alum of haverford college and have a gig for the summer at the NIH outside of DC. i have already mentioned to prof. grobstein and wanted to throw out to the rest of you the possibility of my returning at some point to present to the group the work of the lab i am presently in.

the lab, under the heading of system neuroscience, is run by a dr. dietmar plenz whose background begins with math before ending up in computational neuroscience. among other neural phenomena, the lab studies self-organized criticality in the slices of cortical brain culture of rats, which was of great interest to me when if stumbled across it, and i thought would be also to this group.

what they do is extract brains from rats and keep the slices of those brains alive as culture, sometimes as long as months! the lab is strangely reminiscent of images i have of mad scientist laboratories in old movies. in recording from the cortex (it hasn't been found in the lower structures) of these cultures, they have found that the activity of networks of neurons erupt in series of what they call avalanches (which consequently follow a power law).

these are the same avalanches that per bak described in his famous sand pile model! the fact that this network activity follows strict power laws goes against much of how we have thought of neural activity (ie. synchronous or wavelike). the activity is nonlinear and can be mapped through probabilities (the power law) of an avalanche occuring of a certain size over a function of time gone by. the large infrequent avalanches can be thought of as epileptic activity, the smallest most frequent as no useful information transmitted, and the middle set corresponds to a critical state in which information transmission from one set of neurons to another is optimal.

my attraction to this work comes out of an initial fascination with the idea of self-organized criticality. what i take from the general concept of s-oc is that systems which seem to act chaotically at times are actually existing in a kind of stability that is ruled by this randomness of activity. my interest always falls back to human behavior, in which i rarely see anything except seemingly chaotic behavior that somehow maintains a level of stability (if we are lucky). to have found these power laws in the most basic activity of cortical cultures of rats, i think, will provide a way to make progress towards understanding our own inherent chaotic activity in terms of actual neural mechanisms.

as can be imagined, the work going on at the NIH does not lean as far towards the philosophical implications that i find so juicy in all of this. i have spent my first week crash coursing in computer programming and the more technical aspects of neuro science to try to keep my head above water in this lab. at some point (towards the end of the summer?) i would very much like to return to an emergent meeting and maybe clarify some of what i am trying to understand myself here. for those who are interested and able, i did have a link to the paper where the above findings are presented, but it has randomly become a dead link at the moment, so i will try to send that along later.

i regret that i am not close enough to talk to you guys in person about this, but for anyone interested or who may have questions, i am very accessible through email.

I definitely missed something
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2004-06-14 11:01:22
Link to this Comment: 10107

I've now unfortunately had to miss two presentations of Tim Burke/Bruce Maxwell's NSF Proposal (one for each emergent group), so I may be way out to sea here and urge anyone who has the time to throw me a liferaft.

1) To start with Paul's quote:

At the core of the "great (wo)man" controversy is the issue of whether individual agents (humans) have as individuals
* a sense of the current state of some collective property
* a capacity to conceive it to be other than it is
* some degree of effectiveness in altering the collective property

Does anyone disagree (aside from old-style Marxists) that all three of the above are true?

a) The philosophical issue with respect to agency still seems to be the question of free will, and here I think that Wolfram's World View is of some help. Wolfram's point, in my interpretation, is that the distinction between random and pseudo-random is itself a pseudo distinction. All random events (outside of quantum mechanics - but here I still think Einstein was right) are pseudo-random, just like random number generators. They appear random to us, like a toss of a coin, because we cannot carry out all of the calculations that would be necessary to predict what is at its most fundamental level a deterministic phenomenon. Wolfram raises this to a matter of principle and says that we will never be able to carry out these calculations, because we cannot outcompute something that is of the same level of complexity as our computers. I am not sure about this (I think that there probably are a lot more levels of complexity than Wolfram's 4), but as a practical matter, I think Wolfram is right.

So, what we think of as free will is behavior that is too complex for us ever to calculate either in principle (Wolfram) or in practice (Wolfram-lite).

b) At a purely practical level, the "degrees of effectiveness" is obviously a key issue and certainly worth exploring, but so long as there is any effectiveness (who can deny that there isn't), there is agency in principle.

2) Now to Anne's post. There is obviously a lot of work in economics on the degree to which markets effectively aggregate information. Economics is predicated on markets doing this successfully - the price you pay for a product is supposed to represent the costs of all of the resources that went into producing the product. If the price does not reflect this, then markets are not efficient. Economics have a very sophisticated understanding of what it means for markets to aggregate information effectively - it's called rational expectations. While there is a lot of work in this area, there is no consensus. My own view is that markets do a pretty good job^1 when the information is repetitive, by which I mean that the same processes are happening over and over (like the seasonal production of wheat). Markets do not do such a good job when the event is new - like the dotcom bubble.

Anne is right that at bottom this must have a lot to do with emergence. So, for example, a lot of people thought that the dotcom bubble was insane, but their buying and selling of stock was not sufficient to keep the bubble from happening.

Finally, there is an irony in what I take to be Anne's Hope. In economics, the people who trumpet the market's ability to always successfully aggregate information are conservatives (the same people who almost brought us the terrorism futures market). Anne seems to be hoping that this model will support the "group work" model of progressive education. At this level, I think that the social psychology research which consistently shows that the group is smarter than the average of the group but dumber than the smartest members has the right answer. Group work involves close-up social dynamics in a way that markets don't, and social psychology is the right level at which to analyze that, in my view.

1. Here I am ignoring externalities, like pollution. Externalities are in principle not a criticism of markets, because as their name implies, they represent a problem precisely because they are external to markets (ie they do not have a market price). This is why trading pollution rights which many environmentalists view as an abomination, is really a good thing.

continuing the conversation ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-06-14 12:34:15
Link to this Comment: 10108

Re Mark:

Thanks for taking the "agency" prescription seriously. I do too, and even think I can modify the existing segregation/integration model to illustrate/further explore the implications of that description (if/when I find some usable empty time).

BUT ... I'd hate to be heard as equating "agency" (as in the above prescription) with "free will". I was thinking about the former, not the latter, and your comment made me realize the prescription is NOT sufficient for "free will" (nor for "agency" IF one includes "free will" in the meaning of that term). So thanks also for alerting me to the problem and so forcing me to clarify my own thinking.

I'd be inclined to argue that "agency" (in the sense defined by the prescription) is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for "free will". There are two additional things needed for the latter:

  1. an internal experience of alternative possible behaviors from which one is chosen as an output (ie the ability to withhold behavior while considering their likely outcomes and desirabilities; see Free Will).
  2. the capacity to conceive of futures that are not in any formal system derivable from the current state (itself reflecting all past states

Wolfram is the current version of Newton. He, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and others (you?) are attracted by the idea that item 2 above is unnecessary to make sense of existing observations, ie that everything actually IS at most "pseudo-random", so that everything one does is in fact rule-based/deterministic.

An alternative perspective that I favor is that formal systems are fundamentally limited in their capabilties (Godel, Turing, Penrose) and that randomness plays a large role in "reality" than we think (or want?). I don't think this is a "pseudo-distinction", but am prepared to acknowledge that there is as yet no way to make the distinction operationally (for either quantum phenomena or human behavior). Inherent in the form of that concession is (for me) the challenge of finding a way to in practice make operational a distinction that I think will in the long run turn out to be quite important. And I think we're close to doing so, at least in the way it has been done for quantum mechanics (by showing that it is more productive to think of things in this way).

Re Anne via/with Mark:

My guess is that humans who exercise free will (in the sense defined above) are, in many situations, "wiser'" than those who don't (they are less likely to repeat known mistakes). Assemblies of people who don't individually exercise free will are likely to be less wise (in the same sense) than some individuals who do. And assemblies of people who discover the trick of encouraging each others' free will capabilities are likely to be wisest of all. They will collectively recognize more mistakes and collectively come up with more alternative ways of behaving.

This may make economist's life harder rather than easier, just as free will tends to make assembly lines and other commerical enterprises less efficient. And ... "if it spreads, I might have to work harder to persuade people to do what I want them to do, and walk farther to get a quick lunch. I'm pretty sure though that I'll feel a lot safer, and I'm damned sure life will be a lot more fun. Want to come along?

From agency to free will and back to...old-fashion
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-06-17 00:17:08
Link to this Comment: 10110

Okay, what I'm picking up from the most recent interchange (above) is that Paul's very fine articulation of "agency" as

got further refined (via some prodding from Mark) into an articulation of "free will":

The refinement here seems to be the addition of awareness of internal experience. Okay, so far, so good. But now what I'm puzzling over is how to step off from said refinement to the teaching of history.... thinking again of the Mennonite history prof I mentioned in our last session (see bottom panel @ Teaching Peace) who uses counterfactuals to recapture those "moments of decision when peace might have broken out," and claims that learning this sort of "what if" history actually gets his students closer to the "truth of what happened" (his terms)/ a "fuller" history (mine).

So: my question now is how we (you, Tim!) might teach--in line w/ Jim Juhnke's history for pacifist activists--a history of agency and free will. In the new Information Group on Tuesday morning, I found myself wondering how our exploration of the "formally, technically, logically, mathematically... irreversible process of the transferal/transformation of information" could explain wherefrom arose the relatively recent renovations in the teaching of history (from a focus on the activities of powerful men and women, to the sort of social history that tells stories about the lives of the powerless...)

Now I find myself wondering how such social history can map onto the desire to teach history about human beings as free agents....Do the sort of distributed networks we talk about here acknowledge the free will of those who do not hold the power to make much difference in the world (because every small act has--potentially--some great consequence...?) Or does the desire to foreground agency and free will inevitably return us to teaching the history of great (sic) (wo)men?

People cry 'peace, peace', but there is no peace
Name: Mark Kuper
Date: 2004-06-18 10:25:31
Link to this Comment: 10113

With respect to counterfactual history, my distinction between random and pseudo random is critical. If everything is actually pseudo-random, then the following statements are true:

1) If the process is sufficiently complex, then you will not be able to predict the outcome. There will appear to be randomness and the common conception of free will at work.

2) Teaching counterfactual history can still be useful because it is a kind of controlled experiment. Ex post , it may help you see which forces were more important in causing the event than other forces.

3) But, and this is a very big but, the fact that you cannot predict the outcome in advance DOES NOT mean that the outcome could have happened any other way.

4) So, strictly speaking, there never are "moments of decision when peace might have broken out". If peace didn't in fact "break out", then it never could have.

5) So, is everything we do, including teaching people what forces might have caused peace to break out, futile? I would say no, because we are all part of this complex process. So,

a) if teaching people what kinds of moments are ripe for peace and what people who are pro-peace need to do to increase the chances of peace breaking out, causes people to act differently than they would have without that knowledge, and
b) if these actions are effective, then
c) this act of teaching does change the world.

Article on smart-mob artistry
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-07-21 12:08:25
Link to this Comment: 10449

An article at Slate on smart mobs and the collaborative creation of artistic works.
...the world of online collaboration is discovering what artists have always known: Rigid conventions are often crucial to producing art. Novels, poems, and oil paintings are really just structural devices that take an artist's zillion competing ideas—an internal, self-contradicting mob—and focus them into a coherent work.

Invitation to a Book on Emergence
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-08-03 14:26:01
Link to this Comment: 10575

A reminder to those who have made/want to make a commitment to this project....
and an invitation to others:

July 20, 2004


Attached for your review and feedback are drafts of a letter to publishers and an introduction for our forthcoming book on emergent systems.

I'm writing to ask that all of you who expressed initial interest in writing a chapter and any others who may be interested commit to the project no later than August 20 with a title (I have a working provisional list, gleaned from past talks), a 100-word abstract, and a 2-sentence professional biography -- or let me know that you do not want to participate. This will allow one week before the fall semester begins to prepare and get out the mailing. I'd also be welcome from you additional suggestions for publishers whom you think would be interested in this volume.

As your past and future audience, I encourage you onwards!


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