On Emergence

September 04, 2020

Matt Ridley, on this wonderful Econtalk episode:

I mean, I have a section in the book called, “Who Invented the Computer?” And I draw very heavily on Walter Isaacson’s wonderful book, The Innovators, to understand that story. And in the end, I conclude that, even though this happened only a couple of generations ago and everything was written down and everybody knew what everybody was doing (…) we can’t say who invented the computer. There is no answer to that question.

It’s a great realization for how obvious it sounds in hindsight. Such a big part of our lives depend on these wonderful creations: computers, aeroplanes, cars, the nuclear reactor, democracy… At first glance, it almost seems obvious someone had to invent them. It’s even ingrained in the way we talk about them. We speak about inventions as single entities, unique events in time. And yet the reality is these tools emerged out of much simpler, incremental steps.

It very loosely resembles the idea of Emergence, which describes how complex systems stem out of simpler processes. Think how neurons, mindlessly firing up in your brain, somehow produce your intricate human behaviour. How ants and bees can build structurally complicated nests. How life is essentially a collection of molecules arranged in a very particular order.

There must be symmetries between complex systems in nature and the products of human creativity.

Hi there 👋, I’m Gerard, Software Engineer and aspirant polymath. I write this blog, build Factorial, and publish the best I read on Twitter.