The Inventor of Emergence: George Henry Lewes, in 1875

Emergence and complex systems: These concepts are more and more important, with the growth of the Internet, distributed intelligence, social media, and collective consciousness. “Emergence” refers to higher-level phenomena “emerging” from lower-level components, organized into complex systems. For example, mental states — like memory, attention, emotions — are said to emerge from neurons and their interactions. The biological brain is a complex system, with its many components interacting in multiple and different ways.

Today “emergence” is associated with the Internet and social media. But “emergence” isn’t so new, after all. It comes to us from the 19th century. The term “emergence” was coined in 1875 in a book by the British philosopher, George Henry Lewes. The issue at that time was: Why doesn’t all science ultimately reduce to physics? After all, everything in the world is composed of atoms. So the science of atoms and how they interact could, potentially, explain everything. If everything scientific reduced to physics, then all of the other sciences would potentially be unnecessary: biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, you name it. If that seems wrong today, then it seemed even more wrong in the 19th century, when science was a lot more primitive than now. But you can’t just say it seems wrong; you need a scientific and logical argument for why everything doesn’t reduce to physics.

“Emergence” was the answer to why all science isn’t physics, even though everything in the world is made up of physical stuff. (This is still, basically, the answer of today’s philosophers of science.) In 1875, George Henry Lewes wrote about the difference between mechanical effects (which he called “resultants”) and chemical effects (which he called “emergents”). (Lewes was borrowing from a similar distinction made by John Stuart Mills in 1843.) Lewes’ example of emergence was the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Because water doesn’t have any of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, its properties were “emergent” from the combination. Contrast that with a steam engine: It’s a complicated system, to be sure, but the properties of the whole system aren’t that different from the properties of the components, the metal, water, and coal that make up the engine’s operation. They are “resultants.”

I tell this history in my 2005 book Social emergence: Societies as complex systems.

You’ve probably already noticed a serious problem with the emergence argument: In 1875, Lewes didn’t know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a few years later, scientists were able to explain water, and how the properties of water were explained by hydrogen, oxygen, and their combination. Water doesn’t seem so “emergent” any more. This is why the reductionists, the people that argue that everything can be explained by lower-level sciences, dismiss the emergence argument. Sure, they say, it seems to us that consciousness can’t be explained in terms of neurons and the brain. But just wait a couple of years, a couple of decades, and we’ll see that everything is really just neurons.

I was reminded of G. H. Lewes this weekend, when I read a book review of the new book Reading the Rocks  by Brenda Maddox. The book is about Victorian geologists (it sounds like a snooze-fest, but the review calls it “engaging” and “absorbing” and it sounds like my kind of book!) and it starts with the novelist George Eliot. It turns out that she was a geologist, as well as a novelist. She was introduced to geology by–guess who–George Henry Lewes. They spent vacations together, hammering at rocks.

One sentence in the book review jumped out at me: “Ms. Maddox traces the emergence of geology in Britain during the 19th century.” Emergence is everywhere! But we still don’t know for sure: Does it really happen? Or is it just a figure of speech?


Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

Books About Complexity and Emergence

I thought the market for complexity books had been saturated, but here’s another one: A Crude Look at the Whole  by John H. Miller. (WSJ  review here.)

The first wave of complexity books was in the mid 1990s:

The heyday of complexity books was just after 2000 (my own book appeared in 2005):

In just the past few years, we have

According to Ronald Bailey’s WSJ  review, Miller’s book covers familiar ground. Like my 2005 book, he argues that “societies are complex systems”; that social phenomena “emerge unpredictably from components”; that “simple parts interact in complex ways to create an emerging whole”. His examples of emergence from complexity are familiar from these earlier books: biological evolution, markets, the Internet, political protests. Bailey’s review is politely critical of the book; he says “it’s hard to see how complexity science is much help to current policy makers or citizens.” I disagree; I think that understanding complexity and emergence has incredible value, especially in understanding social systems. Maybe Miller’s book isn’t the first one you should read, but the long list of earlier books (and their strong sales) demonstrates that this research is helping lots of people.

The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)



How Teams Work Together

I’ve just read a wonderful research article called “Team implicit coordination processes”.*  Most studies of how team coordinate have focused on planning and communication; these are both explicit coordination, meanint that everyone is consciously aware of what they’re doing, they’re trying to do it, and they’re talking about it.  The authors of this article claim that explicit coordination only explains relatively static teams, when the situation isn’t changing very rapidly.  Implicit coordination happens “when team members anticipate the actions and needs of their colleagues…and dynamically adjust their own behavior accordingly, without having to communicate directly with each other or plan the activity” (p. 164).

That’s exactly what goes on in a jazz ensemble or an improv theater group, the super-creative groups that I’ve spent years studying (see my book GROUP GENIUS).  Teams have to implicitly coordinate to handle rapidly changing environments when their tasks are highly interdependent; teams that are implicitly coordinating talk a lot less about what they’re doing and what they should do next.  (This reminded me of a conversation I had at Harvard recently with Professor Rob Huckman, who has studied surgical teams.  Surgeons say that in the best teams, no one is talking…that’s implicit coordination!)

Teams that have this down do four things: (1) each member provides task-relevant information even before they are asked for it; (2) team members share the workload without being asked; (3) everyone is monitoring the progress of the activity and the performance of their teammates; and (4) each person adapts behavior to what they expect the others will do.

The authors argue that implicit coordination can only work if the group creates an “emergent team-level knowledge structure” that they call a team situation model.  The model includes shared knowledge like the team’s goal and the roles of each participant.  Because of my own studies of social emergence, I agree when the authors claim that the situation model is “an emergent group property characterizing the team as a whole” (see my 2005 book SOCIAL EMERGENCE for more details).

*Ramon Rico, Miriam Sanchez-Manzanares, Francisco Gil, and Cristina Gibson.  2008.  “Team implicit coordination processes: A team knowledge-based approach.”  Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 163-184.