Emergent Phenomena: "More Than the Sum Of the Parts"

I’ve been seeing the word emergence more and more in the last few years. But apart from the obvious sense that something arises, the meaning of the term—and what the excitement is all about—haven’t been clear to me.

So a helpful source that I will summarize here has been “The Sacred Emergence of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon (2008). As the title suggests, the authors not only describe emergence but also discuss its place in the perspective of religious naturalists.

The adage that “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” conveys a rough idea of the principle of emergence. Emergence occurs when a combination of entities has characteristics that are unlike the characteristics of its components. The common example is water: it combines hydrogen and oxygen but is like neither of those gases.

Goodenough and Deacon emphasize that emergence is the counterpart of reductionism, the process of breaking entities down into their parts. Though it tells us much about what a substance is made of, reductionism tells us little about how the parts came together in the first place and how properties emerged. In short, as the authors put it, reductionism is running the movie backwards. Emergence, in contrast, runs the movie forwards to show atoms forming compounds which then form  structures, and even how life may have begun and developed.

Two gasses merge to form a very different molecule of water. When, in turn, two or more water molecules come together, they again display characteristics as a solid, liquid, or gas that the single water molecule doesn’t possess.

In the same way, a sequence of atoms, molecules and complex compounds, merging and emerging one from the other, may have created life. The pivotal moment, according to Goodenough and Deacon, occurred when the sequence happened to create over again one of the first chemicals in its chain. At that point a cycle was created, the basis of the self-sustaining quality that is characteristic of life. Energy (food) would be needed, along with an internal recipe for the proper sequence (DNA), and a living things could emerge.

Goodenough and Deacon emphasize, interestingly, that it is not this coded recipe, the genome, that is driving the system. “Selfish genes” are not in control. “Genomes are in fact the handmaidens of emergent properties, not the other way around…. The whole point of life is to generate emergent properties that, if successfully executed, have the additional feature of permitting transmission of genomes.” It is the organism and its emergent properties that must survive and reproduce if the genome is to make it through to the next generation.

As organic entities increase in number and complexity, examples of emergence abound. Molecules merge to form proteins, proteins merge to carry out organic functions, functional parts converge to form organs, neural cells form brains, brains merge to create mass behavior, language, ideas, cities, the Web.

Finally, Goodenough and Deacon describe the place of emergence in the view of nature and biology as sacred. Selected sentences from this rich discussion will have to suffice here. The theme is that emergent properties, by virtue of their originality, lie at the heart of what is wondrous and transcendent throughout nature.

On our place in nature: The understanding that human-specific traits are emergent—something else popping through from all that has gone on before and continues to surround us—is fully consonant with what we now know about the course of natural history, and a deeply satisfying way to think about who we are….Evolutionary theory asks us to situate the human in the natural world, and this can generate cognitive dissonance given that our mental capacities would seem to place us ‘above’ the natural world and our cultures ‘above’ the natural order. The emergentist perspective allows us to see ourselves not as ‘above’ but rather as remarkably ‘something else.’

On the magical and transcendent: The emergentist perspective opens countless opportunities to encounter and celebrate the magical while remaining mindful of the fully natural basis of each encounter. There is a way in which the universe is re-enchanted each time one takes in its continuous coming into being, and there is a way in which our lives are re-enchanted each time we realize that we too are continually transcending ourselves.

On morality: One’s moral framework is not some instinct that just bubbles up. It is something that each of us constructs, amplifying and reconfiguring primate social emotions in the context of cultural stimuli and teachings.

I understand emergence better now and appreciate it more. But I’m wondering about the relationship between emergence and evolution. Both name foundational aspects of how new things and characteristics come to exist. But I’m not sure whether they are most effectively viewed as two processes or as different aspects of a single process. Do the interactions of genetic mutations with natural selection amount to a dynamic that is different from emergence? Or are they, instead, components of unusual types in an otherwise regular emergent sequence?

Any thoughts about this question or other aspects of emergence will be welcome.


Update, January 23, 2017 – Dr. Goodenough responds to our article…

In organisms, relationships between gene products (proteins) or other biosynthetic products (lipids, carbohydrates, etc.) generate emergent shapes, ultimately, that in turn can influence resultant phenotypes. Phenotypes are emergent, genotypes are not. Mutations in genotypes that generate novel emergent properties are heritable, but natural selection doesn’t “see” genotypes; it only sees phenotypes: how the organism crawls or feeds or protects from predators or whatever. If a given organism with a given heritable phenotype is better adapted to a given environment in which that organism finds itself than is a second phenotype, that organism is more likely to flourish and generate progeny, and hence that mutant version of the gene is more likely to spread into the population. The short definition of evolution is descent with variation. So — new emergent properties → variants → evolution. Two processes, but coupled!


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5 thoughts on “Emergent Phenomena: "More Than the Sum Of the Parts"”

  1. Great article Brock! I love complex-systems theory. Reading about it was, in fact, one of my first profound experiences which started me down the road to spiritual naturalism.

    On your question, my understanding is that emergence is one of several traits of complexity and, as such, a much more primal/basic description of how matter organizes itself in our universe. Life and evolution would then be one example of these principles playing out within a certain subset of materials and scale. But many examples of these more primal principles of matter organization can be found outside of biology.

    That subset we call biology is in some ways arbitrarily distinguished from the rest – based on our psychology which calls certain kinds of forms and structures to our attention (it pays off more to focus on tigers and our meat than it does crystals and such). But on the other hand, there are some emergent properties which are unique to biology so the distinguishing makes sense in many contexts too.

    At least, that’s my understanding but I’m no expert 🙂

  2. Thanks Brock for this well conceived and written article.

    While Goodenough and Deacon include include fairly simple and repeatable processes such as gasses forming into molecules as part of the concept of emergence, I prefer to keep the word for singular, non-repeating events that result in unpredictable novelty.

    There are a few junctures in the history of the Universe where a whole new range of phenomena “emerge” that could scarcely be predicted prior to that emergence. Life is certainly one of those junctures, and human culture – which has for better or worse transformed the surface of the earth – is another. In our own lifetimes we have seen the rise of the Internet, and to me it is a very good example of emergence on a large scale. In the early 80s I read a lot of predictions about how computers would change the world, but nobody really predicted the Internet and the specific changes it has brought. Therein is the unpredictable part of emergent phenomena and the way it rapidly generates things never before seen in the world.

    In the naturalist view of the world, the Universe is both the given and the giver, creation and creator. Emergence is the creative power of the Universe, in its own way it is divine process.

    • Thank you Thomas.
      I like the idea of the emergent universe as both creator and creation—self-contained and still wondrous.
      I’m not sure what I think about whether emergence is most useful as a concept for repeated events or for singular ones. With repeated events, emergence is certainly more predictable, though it might continue to be surprising; hydrogen and oxygen predictably make up water, but water remains surprisingly different from its components. On the other hand, unique emergences, like life or the Internet, have something in common with Black Swan events—unexpected, unlikely, important. All these qualities depend on our human responses and expectations, though.


  3. Thanks, Daniel. Yes, it makes sense to think of mutations and natural selection as instances of, ultimately, complexity.


  4. I appreciate Dr. Goodenough’s helpful response in the update at the end of the article. I found myself trying to form a picture of the emergence-evolution relationship as she explains it. She ends with “Two processes, but coupled.” Coupled perhaps in a kind of dance. One partner is the physical traits that emerge from the body’s mutations and chemical interactions. The other is natural selection. It can’t touch that emergent process directly but it can waltz with the physical results and promote some traits over others. Together their path around the dance floor is evolution.


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