Yesterday I watched a re-run of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.
There. I said it.
I love Star Trek. Notwithstanding the many absurd evolution-based plotlines.
In this specific episode, Data referred to a particular characteristic of a newly-developing lifeform as an “emergent property.”
I’ve looked into the “emergence” ideas in the past, and the related self-organization hypotheses, and have never been too impressed. But it has been a while, so I thought I’d quickly navigate over to the Wikipedia page on the subject to see what it says. Now I’m a big fan of the general concept behind Wikipedia and it is a very useful tool, if used properly. Yet everyone knows that Wikipedia is a questionable source on controversial subjects. Want to know Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or the text of the Gettysburg Address? Wikipedia is great. Want to get an objective description of a controversial subject like — oh just to pick at random, say, evolution or intelligent design — and you will be sorely misled.
Emergence itself is not necessarily controversial, at least not in its simple, observationally-based definition. Wikipedia describes it as “a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.” Fine. Nothing particularly controversial there. I’m willing to accept that as a reasonable working definition for purposes of discussion.
The problem arises when researchers or theorists imagine that emergence is an explanation for a particular phenomenon. For example, the very next paragraph on Wikipedia states, “the phenomenon life as studied in biology is commonly perceived as an emergent property of interacting molecules . . .” By labeling “life” as an “emergent property of interacting molecules” a researcher can fool herself into thinking that she has understood something foundational about life, that she has provided some kind of explanation for life. Yet she has done nothing of the sort. She has simply applied a label to her ignorance, has simply given a name to something she doesn’t understand.
The word “emerge” is typically defined as “to come forth into view or notice, as from concealment” or “to come up or arise” or “to come into existence” or “to develop”.
This is straightforward enough, and allows us to say that, in its most basic sense, the concept of “emergence” simply means that A + B leads to or develops into C. This can be deterministic or stochastic, but either way, it is quite simple. The following two sentences are substantively equivalent:
A plus B develops into C.
C is an emergent property of A plus B.
Notice that with the first sentence we would immediately ask the follow-up question: “How?” Yet with the second sentence we don’t naturally follow up with that question. Indeed, the wording gives the impression that the “how?” has been answered by the very term “is an emergent property.” But in reality, no explanation at all is offered. No “how” has been given. We don’t know one iota more about the real, underlying processes at work after reading the second sentence than the first. So we should still follow up the second sentence with an emphatic “How?”, yet the very rhetorical stance taken in the second sentence tends to discourage that critical follow-up question.
Calling a living organism an “emergent property” of various molecules, is about as helpful and intellectually vacuous as saying that the Space Shuttle is an “emergent property” of glass, metal and plastic. It isn’t helpful. It hasn’t added anything to our knowledge of what actually brought the system into being. Worse, it all too often gives the false impression that an explanation has been offered.*
Let me be clear. I am not arguing that the word “emergence” be stricken from our language. I am not suggesting that the concept, as commonly defined, might not be a helpful shorthand label that we can use in certain situations.
What I am saying is that we must be scrupulously careful to not allow the label of “emergence” to be treated as more than it is: a label that does not carry with it an actual explanation, a label that does not provide a detailed analysis, a label that (unless we are extremely vigilant) tends to mask ignorance, rather than shed light.
So, for our dear readers, two questions:
1. What, if anything, does the concept of “emergence” add to our understanding of natural phenomena? And how is calling X an “emergent property” any different from simply observing that X occurred?
2. Even if there are some phenomena that can be helpfully thought of as emergent phenomena (Wikipedia cites snowflakes, hurricanes, ripple patterns in a sand dune, etc.), what relevance does that have to the origin and development of living systems?
* Laughably, Wikipedia even tries to suggest that irreducible complexity is nothing more than a case of emergence, as though that label explains the existence of irreducibly complex biological systems. Worse, not capable of seeing the irony, the intellectual pygmies who tyrannically maintain the irreducible complexity page call irreducible complexity “a pseudoscientific theory.”