Re: [asa] Emergence

From: Terry M. Gray <>
Date: Fri Jun 12 2009 - 19:16:58 EDT


Yes. I apply emergence even to phenomena like inside/outside that
results when a bilayer self-assembles from phospholipids in water to
form a vacuole. The property is "unpredictable" from the individual
components and is the result of the system--in this case a amphipathic
molecule of the right geometry in water. Inside/outside is at
completely different level--perhaps even ontologically--and the
molecules in question still don't "know" that they are participating
in the higher level.

To me this is a very interesting model for how the biological can at
the same time be reduced to the physical/chemical and yet not be
reduced to the physical/chemical.

Loren Haarsma and I discussed these sorts of phenomena in our chapter
in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. Frankly, I see this as a very
promising direction for origin of life studies to take. Early
manifestations of these sorts of systems may even be acellular. It
also lends some solution to the protein first or RNA first conundrum.
The answer is neither. They were both present and the RNA/protein
emerged as an autocatalytic system. This is where some of the work of
Stuart Kauffman comes in.

Bill commented that emergence was considered non-reductionistic. I
agree with him. And this is the true meaning of irreducible complexity
and why I don't want to give up the term or leave it to the ID folks.
The function is a property of the whole. But it is conceivable given
the description/criteria that Randy summarized for the whole to be
assembled (sufficient complexity, energy flux, etc.) and then function
to suddenly emerge (and this is no miracle or act of special
creation). Interestingly, Uko Zylstra considers emergentism to be a
form of reductionism because the whole emerges from the parts based
solely on physical/chemical properties.


On Jun 11, 2009, at 8:08 PM, Randy Isaac wrote:

> Hazen isn't suggesting these are sufficient, he's just identifying
> common features that always seem to be present in emergence of
> complexity. He didn't state either "necessary" or "sufficient", just
> "common".
> I think emergence isn't always precisely defined. It can be used in
> the more narrow sense as you did and some people use it in a broader
> sense to refer to any characteristic that could not be predicted
> from a knowledge of only one or a very few individuals.
> Randy
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
> To: "Randy Isaac" <>
> Cc: <>
> Sent: Thursday, June 11, 2009 5:07 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] Emergence
>> Randy et al.
>> Remember that emergence, at least classically, is nonreductionist,
>> implying that what emerges is not merely surprising, but novel and
>> inexplicable in terms of the "base" level from which it emerges.
>> So it is not like the "slipperiness" of water.
>> What he has so far provided as "necessary" conditions seem likely
>> to be
>> insufficient to produce emergence, i.e, there are too many examples
>> that have these conditions but would not be regarded as truly
>> emergent.
>> bill
>> On Thu, 11 Jun 2009, Randy Isaac wrote:
>>> Another lecture I just heard from Hazen in his Origins of Life
>>> course warrants taking some notes. I need to write them down to
>>> help me remember so I'll go ahead and share them with you, in case
>>> you're interested.
>>> The topic of this lecture was emergence. Thinking about the
>>> phenomenon of emergence may have some relevant input into the
>>> study of origins of life. Hazen therefore takes the time to
>>> articulate four factors necessary for the emergence of complex
>>> phenomena in a group of individual elements. Two simple examples
>>> that he uses to illustrate these ideas are grains of sand and
>>> ants. I mentally added my own field of charge carriers in
>>> semiconductors.
>>> 1. Concentration. There needs to be a concentration of individual
>>> elements that exceeds some threshold level. Grains of sand won't
>>> show complex structures until you have enough of them concentrated
>>> in one region. Ants don't show social behavior until you have
>>> enough of them. Charge carriers aren't interesting if you don't
>>> have enough.
>>> 2. A mode of interaction. There must be a means of interaction
>>> among the individual elements in order for complexity to emerge.
>>> Grains of sand interact merely by touching each other. Ants have
>>> various means of interacting including carrying each other! Charge
>>> carriers interact through electromagnetic coupling but can also
>>> form Cooper pairs, for example.
>>> 3. Energy flux. There must be a source of energy through the
>>> system before complexity emerges. This must be in some optimal
>>> range. Too little and nothing happens. Too much and the complexity
>>> is destroyed. For sand, it is gravity and wind and/or water. I
>>> forgot what he said it was for ants. Maybe the food source. Charge
>>> carriers need an applied voltage or electric field.
>>> 4. Cycling of energy. This was the new one for me. He says that a
>>> cycling of the energy flux dramatically increases the complexity
>>> that emerges in a system. For sand it would be the ebb and flow of
>>> the waves or the wind. For ants there are various cycles including
>>> day/night cycles and seasonal fluctuations. Charge carriers
>>> respond much more interestingly due a varying field.
>>> How does this affect the study of the origins of life? I'm sure
>>> he'll use it more later but for now it can help shape the places
>>> and features to study. Concentration means you aren't looking for
>>> just one little microbe but a relatively large population.
>>> Interactions are most likely chemical so one needs to study all
>>> possible chemical reactions to form biomolecules. Energy flux can
>>> come from many sources--solar energy, chemical energy, geothermal,
>>> etc. Most of these are cyclical as well.
>>> We'll see where it goes from here.
>>> I really like his style of teaching. He describes science as it
>>> really works in a far-out frontier, the good, the bad, and the
>>> ugly. It's not a smooth process and has lots of bumps in the road.
>>> But the process generates a lot of insight, whether the endgoal is
>>> reached or not. The Teaching Company has his course, among several
>>> other interesting ones, on sale through Sunday. See
>>> Randy
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Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
Computer Support Scientist
Chemistry Department
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523
(o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801

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Received on Fri Jun 12 19:17:33 2009

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