An ant is pretty stupid. It hardly has a brain, has no driveand doesn’t really have a plan but yet thousands of them are smart. Ant coloniescan construct complicated structures. Some can even keep farms of fungi andkeep cattle.
They can go to war or defend themselves from threats. How is thispossible? How can a whole lot of stupid things do smart things together?This phenomenon is known as emergence and is one of the mostmysterious and intriguing properties of our universe. In a nutshell, itdescribes smaller things forming much bigger things that have different featuresthan the sum of their parts. Emergence is complexity arising from simplicity,and this mysterious property of our universe is seen everywhere.
It so happens more is different. This property is a newthing., and that new thing can couple with another new thing to make anothernew thing and repeat the process. You can imagine this as layers stacked uponeach other, with each layer being more complex than the previous player. Atoms make up molecule. Molecules make up proteins. Proteinsform cells. Cells form organs.
Organs make up individuals. Individuals make upsocieties. But how can something more than the sum of its parts? How can antsmake the sort of cloudy entity that is a colony?By following a set of rules that can produce order fromchaos. Let’s take how a colony distributes jobs for instance. Let’s make theassumption that a colony has 25% workers, 25% caretakers, 25% soldiers and 25%gatherers. Ants can communicate their job via chemicals.
As and example, aworker ant constantly excretes a chemical that says that it is a worker. Whenants meet another ants, they exchange information by smelling each other,telling each other their job as well as what they’re doing. Both keep track whothey’ve met in the past.
Now picture something like a anteater wipes out almostall the gatherers. If this problem isn’t solved, they colony will die out dueto starvation. Many workers need to switch to being gatherers, but how do youtell this to hundreds if not thousands of them. Simple, you don’t. Our workerants will continue to meet other ants, but will encounter very low amounts ofgatherers. It will continue to count toolittle gatherers until it reaches a certain point and then switches jobs. Otherants will follow suit, until after some time, there enough gatherers again. Thebalance is restored all by itself.
The interactions of an individual are random. You can’tpredict which ant meets which other ant. But these very simple rules are so elegant that a colony’s everyday operationsemerge as a consequence.
On an even more fundamental level, hundreds of millions ofcomplicated molecules interact to maintain a vigorous and complicated structureA being with and array of different properties than the sum of its dead partsemerges. The smallest unit of life: a cell. We still don’t have a cleardefinition of what life actually is, we just know they come from things thatare not alive. Cells combine and collaborate. They specialize and respond to oneanother and overtime, we develop into complicated organism with humongouscapacities. Your legs, arms and heart are a incredibly complicated and complexsystem made of trillions of stupid things…… and yet we breathe, digest and learn.
How do cells knowwhat to do? Quite simply, our cells exchange chemical information to see what exactlythey are up to and decide what to do. There isn’t a mastermind giving orders,just units conversing with other neighbouring units and acting according tofeedback they receive.We don’t know why this happens.
We just observe it, and seemsto be a fundamental part of our universe. And in my humble little opinion, itmay be one of the most beautiful and wonderous property if our universe.