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A Readable Account of Complexity and Emergence, not to be Lightly Dismissed
on May 14, 2014
An interesting look at the new discipline of Complexity science, and a subtle jab at the idea of reductionism as the only way to understand the universe. Johnson, a columnist for Discover, looks at the phenomenon of Emergence as it takes new forms. Starting from the idea of slime molds and ant colonies, both of which are collectives made up of not particularly "intelligent" individual parts that do pretty amazing things as a collective, to brain cells (again not particularly amazing on their own), to computer software that gains complexity as time goes on. Emergence is a complicated subject that covers a verity of phenomena, but is about how things go from simple to complex, and pic up new qualities as they do so. This runs counter to the normal way that science tends to do things, namely to reduce things to the smallest units to understand a thing. Emergence is noted for having a "downwardly causative" affect upon the individual parts that is not particularly predictable by looking at the parts. That is in part why it can be a confusing book: it seems to jump from topic to topic, all the while it is talking about a phenomenon that cuts across all sorts of disciplines and can be seen in many different places. It also, as I noted, works in a way that runs counter to the general dogmatic proposition of reductionist thought that dominates analytic philosophy and science. This leads many to reject the concept out of hand as being "unscientific" or "unfocused." However, it is a real thing, that can be seen in slime mold movements and the development of urban areas. The book points to how it can be harnessed and tapped in order to build a, potentially, better future.