Interdisciplinary Overviews with Emphases on Emergent Order in Science, Computers, and Biology

Dyson, George B. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997. 261 pp.

Dyson argues that the process of biological evolution is in fact being replicated in the evolution of technology. As machines evolve they increasingly take on the ability to process and coordinate information independently of human direction. They do so through distributed networks very similar in computational patterns to the networks of neurons within biological brains. Interesting discussions of the role of symbiosis in evolution, both biological and technological, and its implications for the interaction of the two.

Heylighen, Francis. The Science of Self-Organization and Adaptivity, available at:

An excellent overview within the scientific, computer, and artificial intelligence fields, of the concepts and principles of the theory of self-organization, containing many examples and clear explanations of its relevance to science and to future modelling of complex human and natural systems. Comes to the same conclusion regarding attempts at control of such systems as those from within the Scottish Enlightenment tradition: control and detailed prediction is impossible in principle, beyond small changes at crucial places that will create new broad patterns of resul ts.

* Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, New York: Scribner, 2001. 277 pp.

Johnson coffers a clear and engaging overview of the growing study of emergent systems, primarily with an eye to biology and computers. It also covers four central principles of the field: neighbor interaction, pattern recognition, kind sof feedback, and indirect control. The book begins with a study of ant colonies, and how very complex and adaptive systems arise from communities of insects with very partial awareness guided by simple rules of behavior. He also discusses the possibilities of genuinely emergent systems arising within the internet, its close approximations in computer games, and actual emergence among net linked players of some games, such as Sim City. Johnson also examines emergent phenomena in cities, primarily through the work of Jane Jacobs; and in the media, and explores future possibilities. He appears completely unfamiliar with the work of Hayek and those influenced by him. Related to this, he does not distinguish between emergent orders describable in their entirety by deterministic processes and those that apparently cannot be.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. Reflections on Gender and Science, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 179 pp.

Trained as a mathematical biophysicist, Keller has increasingly turned to the philosophical and social factors shaping modern science. Two chapters are of interest to the study of emerging systems. Part III: Theory, Practice and Methodology in the Making of Science, is relevant to this bibliography primarily through its discussion of ways of conceptualizing power and order, especially pp. 129-138. Keller’s discussion suggests that arguments separating the human from the natural sciences are in error only because they in fact took the natural sciences at their word. They are, in important respects, more akin to the human sciences. Order, from her perspective, “can be spontaneous, self-generated, or externally imposed.”(132) This leads to a reappraisal of what is meant by scientific laws and explanation.

* Kellert, Stephen H. In the Wake of Chaos, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993. 158 pp.

One of the best introductions to chaos theory which, in his words, “provides an understanding of the appearance of unpredictable behavior by constructing models which reveal order.” (79) Kellert’s focus is primarily on chaotic physical systems which are distinct from living systems, but which share interesting similarities with them. Chaos theory involves a departure from mechanistic kinds of understanding towards what Kellert terms “qualitative understanding” through discovering patterns and connections rather than prediction of detailed outcomes. The point echoes Hayek’s argument for “pattern prediction” in his essay on complex phenomena, also listed on this site. One interesting part of the book is his careful discussion of what determinism means in the context of chaotic systems. Perhaps of particular interest is his final chapter, which asks why chaos theory took so long to interest modern science. He suggests it was due to science’s interest in controlling nature, leading to disregarding systems not amenable to control and exploitation. In this way it suggests a common theme with similar problems faced within the social sciences, when they have argued against the possibilities of political and technocratic control. The chapter examines technological, institutional and ideological factors that account for the long term neglect of chaotic phenomena in the sciences, providing empirical support for some feminist accounts of science. (Interestingly, Evelyn Fox Keller, a feminist theorist of science, has also provided important research in the character of biological emergent phenomena. This research is described in Steve Johnson’s Emergence. Some of her relevant work is also on this site.)

Prigogine, Ilya. Science, Civilization and Democracy, Futures, August 1986. 493-507.

Prigogine is a major figure in emphasizing the role of self-organization in chemistry. Here he explores the wider implications of the view of the world his research is helping to establish. Scientific rationality has traditionally been distinguished from that in the human world as well as between simple and complex systems. Prigogine argues this dichotomy has broken down because the old view had a “distorted” conception of scientific rationality. Simple systems far from equilibrium also acquire complex behavior. There are analogues with complexity in the social world, where he gives a “Hayekian” description of the market process. (503-5) Prigogine suggests this model of science is more compatible with traditional democratic values than the earlier models with their technocratic implications.

Titles not yet annotated:

Coveney, Peter and Roger Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity: The Search for Order in a Chaotic World, New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995.

Kaufman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 304 pp.

Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Science, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Perseus, 1995.

Levy, S. Artificial Life: The Quest for New Creation, New York: Random House, 1992. ( )

Marion, R. The Edge of Organization: Chaos and Complexity in Social Structures. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, in press. (

Resnick, Michael. Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 156 pp.

Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, 2002