An ant is pretty stupid. It hardly has a brain, has no drive
and doesn’t really have a plan but yet thousands of them are smart. Ant colonies
can construct complicated structures. Some can even keep farms of fungi and
keep cattle. They can go to war or defend themselves from threats. How is this
possible? How can a whole lot of stupid things do smart things together?
This phenomenon is known as emergence and is one of the most
mysterious and intriguing properties of our universe. In a nutshell, it
describes smaller things forming much bigger things that have different features
than 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 new
thing., and that new thing can couple with another new thing to make another
new thing and repeat the process. You can imagine this as layers stacked upon
each other, with each layer being more complex than the previous player.
Atoms make up molecule. Molecules make up proteins. Proteins
form cells. Cells form organs. Organs make up individuals. Individuals make up
societies. But how can something more than the sum of its parts? How can ants
make the sort of cloudy entity that is a colony?
By following a set of rules that can produce order from
chaos. Let’s take how a colony distributes jobs for instance. Let’s make the
assumption that a colony has 25% workers, 25% caretakers, 25% soldiers and 25%
gatherers. Ants can communicate their job via chemicals. As and example, a
worker ant constantly excretes a chemical that says that it is a worker. When
ants 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 who
they’ve met in the past. Now picture something like a anteater wipes out almost
all the gatherers. If this problem isn’t solved, they colony will die out due
to starvation. Many workers need to switch to being gatherers, but how do you
tell this to hundreds if not thousands of them. Simple, you don’t. Our worker
ants will continue to meet other ants, but will encounter very low amounts of
gatherers. It will continue to count too
little gatherers until it reaches a certain point and then switches jobs. Other
ants will follow suit, until after some time, there enough gatherers again. The
balance is restored all by itself.
The interactions of an individual are random. You can’t
predict which ant meets which other ant.
But these very simple rules are so elegant that a colony’s everyday operations
emerge as a consequence.
On an even more fundamental level, hundreds of millions of
complicated molecules interact to maintain a vigorous and complicated structure
A being with and array of different properties than the sum of its dead parts
emerges. The smallest unit of life: a cell. We still don’t have a clear
definition of what life actually is, we just know they come from things that
are not alive. Cells combine and collaborate. They specialize and respond to one
another and overtime, we develop into complicated organism with humongous
capacities. Your legs, arms and heart are a incredibly complicated and complex
system made of trillions of stupid things…
… and yet we breathe, digest and learn. How do cells know
what to do? Quite simply, our cells exchange chemical information to see what exactly
they 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 to
feedback they receive.
We don’t know why this happens. We just observe it, and seems
to be a fundamental part of our universe. And in my humble little opinion, it
may be one of the most beautiful and wonderous property if our universe.