Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

Grad Idea Forum

October 8, 2002
Emergence, by Steven Johnson

Prepared by Judy McCoyd
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum.

Attendees at the first meeting of the GIF included 3 Keck Fellows- Xenia Morin (Chemistry, Biology), Pamela Geer (Math, Computer Science), and Samantha Glazier (who facilitated this discussion; Chemistry), two Arts and Sciences doctoral students - Cheryl Selah (Chemistry) and Liz Shea (Biology); 3 doctoral candidates in social work/social research- Judie McCoyd, Corey Shdaimah and Roland Stahl; and Paul Grobstein, Bio Prof and coordinator of the Center for Science in Society and the Serendip web site.

The book chosen for this meeting was Emergence by Steven Johnson, and it focused on the discussion of distributed systems and the emergent nature of organization growing from the interaction of seemingly chaotic individual units. Examples included slime molds, ant colonies, computer software, embryonic cells, and cities. Sam started us with an exercise of writing pithy phrases about the book to open discussion. Themes of (1) interdisciplinary webs of understanding, (2) emergent systems within the context of social systems, and (3) theoretical implications of the notion that distributive systems bring about order without “pacemakers” or other controlling entities, quickly were identified and generated discussion.

The notion that emergent systems have varying time frames and life cycles for organization and senescence was considered from multiple angles. The ant colony maturation and senescence over 20 years, mirroring the queen’s health was of interest in considering questions about whether death of the emergent system is always necessary to allow other distributed systems to emerge and evolve in their own way. (We leaned toward a 'yes' answer here.)

The emergent systems of computer software and gaming, and the tendency to ultimately lead into patterns was also considered and these types of systems and their outcomes were viewed as adaptive, but it was noted that in most natural systems (ants, slime molds) there are rule breakers as well as rule followers and that few natural systems have “leaders” assuring adherence to rules, but that organized, adaptive outcomes still seem to emerge. We came to the conclusion that good feedback systems must exist to allow the organization to emerge (pheremone tracks, interactional feedback of other sorts). The parallel to social movements such as civil rights, etc. were considered, particularly as they relate to presence or absence of a leader. Despite some disagreement among the social science contingent about “bottom up” or “top down” strategies for social movement effectiveness, the compromise that bottom up emergent systems seem to occur most adaptively when certain “pivot points” allow change to occur more rapidly was accepted by all.

There were exciting interdisciplinary moments as the social science people explained the controversy of the effectiveness of grassroots vs. charismatic leader- led social change and the “hard” science people explained the 2nd law of Thermodynamics and the tendency toward entropy in closed systems.

Two critiques of the book are its focus on description without normative content and the fact that it ignores “on whose back” the system/ organization emerges. The discussion included both natural and social examples of points throughout and attendees seemed genuinely stimulated by the discussion. We are hopeful that others may be able to join us for the next meeting, Nov 19 at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. The book will be The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (assuming it is available by then). Questions can be directed to Judie McCoyd-

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