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Have you ever seen a giant flock of blackbirds? Several weeks ago, I saw a flock in my neighbor's backyard. The noise from their cackling was deafening. I'm not sure what their purpose was, but I gathered they were foraging for food. Regardless of their intent, they were one of nature's most amazing phenomenons. After one or two of the birds took to the sky, the entire grouping left the yard and followed. Several hundred birds darkened the sky. After a brief moment, they were gone. They flew together like one giant bird. They were graceful yet chaotic at the same time. All of the birds dipped, dodged, and shifted in unison without colliding with each other. Their behavior reminded me of a shoal of fish.

For some odd reason, I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that hundreds of birds flocked together and seemed to function as one unified creature. Scientists have recognized this naturally occurring wonder for many years. It is called emergence. It's found in many places and it has two distinct forms: behavioral or structural. Behavioral emergence describes the deeds of a group of individuals as they emerge into a functional unit. Swarming behaviors of bees, birds and fish are a few examples. Ants also behave under the rules of emergence.

Emergent structures are the actual patterns seen as a group of individuals come together: the natural layout of a neighborhood, or the shape of a flock of birds, or an ant colony itself.

The rules that govern emergence are sometimes counterintuitive. One example is that emergence appears to reverse entropy, it's as if there is a spontaneous shift towards order. A group of birds that come together and behave like an organized unit seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics, which states that systems move towards a state of disorder or chaos rather than order. Another interesting feature of emergence is that the total order in the system must decrease -- but where and how is almost unpredictable. When blackbirds flock together, they decrease their collective entropy. But as the aggregate flock, they are more efficient at extracting energy from the forest and that increases entropy in the ecosystem at large.

There appears to be several other properties or rules that emergent behaviors or emergent structures follow. One is that more is different. If a few individuals gather, no emergent pattern unfolds. The patterns emerge as hundreds or thousands come together. Ignorance appears useful. It seems that scientists believe that the individual components should be fairly simple and/or common. If individuals make their own decisions, it will throw the system out of whack. I don't believe this rule is accurate. Perhaps organisms surrender their individual decision making for the common good of the group. Does that sound familiar?

Emergence depends on, and in many cases encourages, random encounters. Haphazard interactions force the assembly to find new solutions to problems. A flock of birds might not find a path that leads to food, or notice a predator, if something random didn't happen.

Another interesting property is that there are distinct patterns in the signs of communication that an emergent system's constituent parts exchange with one another. Scientists have identified slime molds that increase pheromone secretion as they find food. Pheromones attract more slime mold. The colony enlarges as food become available.

I find that the most interesting aspect of emergence is that local information can lead to global wisdom. Members of a flock of birds communicate directly with each other, not through some central executive. The results of individual interactions help all of them. The sum of the parts is greater than the individuals themselves.

I believe human physiology is a complex emergent system. Cells that belong to the immune system behave like a flock of birds or a shoal of fish; the anatomy of our organs and bones is also emergent. We even share some common features with other animals. Our brains are emergent structures. If we want to better understand our brains and body, we can start with a simple system in order to extract some general principles and apply them. We will see how the body in its entirety functions best. If we violate these simple principles, we become ill in some fashion or form.

In emergence whether behavioral or structural, everything within the system must be in accord. Furthermore, emergence is organized from the bottom up, not the top down. One of nature's fundamental properties is emergence, and it appears that all of us are in some way affected by it. It's like gravity.

So, when you ponder about your illness, think about the simple general principles that went haywire. Some of them we can control, some of them we cannot. Fix the ones you can, accept the ones you can't. Don't forget to follow the Yellow Brick Road. It will more than likely lead you to your own backyard.

Posted by Amanda Sanders at 9:51 AM
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