Seeing the Swarm

In... all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap... the whole is something besides the parts.

It’s annoying to be speeding down a highway only to be stuck in a jam, but it’s even more annoying when, after some time, the jam clears, yet there’s nothing interesting to see—no accident, no stalled car, no merging lane choked with honking cars trying to get on to highway. What caused the jam?

Some obvious things cause traffic, but more subtle things can, too—even something as small as someone braking just a little too sharply. Any slowdown on a highway full of fast-moving cars might trigger a jam of slow-moving cars. Cars entering the jam will slow down, and cars exiting it will speed up. But while the driver at the front of the jam will speed up, the driver right behind won’t speed up as fast—to avoid collision. So even after a triggering event clears up, the jam might persist.

The jam might even move backward down the road, if it eats up more fast cars at its rear than it poops out slow cars at its front. Various cars enter and leave, but it might concertina backward, persisting for hours. So when a driver hits it, its triggering event might have happened miles ahead and hours before. On exiting it, there’s nothing to see.

To a physicist, that’s like a shock wave, a ripple effect traveling back down the highway. To a brain scientist, it’s like a memory of the original event. Aristotle, too, might have noticed it, had cars existed in Greece 2,300 years ago. He wanted to know why ordered things, like a stable yet moving jam, can arise out of chaos, even though nobody planned them.

Lots of stuff with several interacting parts behave like a traffic jam. Take termites. Some of their species build intricate nests that support millions of termites, and without those, they die. Yet they don’t build a nest because their queen plans it all out then tells them what to do. Nobody is in charge, and nobody plans what they do, yet their actions still fit together into a network essential to their survival.

Like a traffic jam, a termite colony persists, even though various termites enter and leave (by being born into, then dying within, it)—except that instead of persisting for hours it might persist for decades. It, too, is like a ripple effect—but traveling down through time instead of across space.

Like a termite colony, a city planner might see similar sorts of part-whole behaviors in the structure, growth, and decay of cities. Similarly, an economist might see similar sorts of things in the structure, growth, and decay of financial systems. The same sort of part-whole interactions can help explain the behavior of markets, countries, or even whole regions when they, wittingly or not, compete for resources over long periods.

To a biologist, both jams of cars and colonies of termites might seem at least a little like living things. In a way, both can be born and both can die, and, in a sense, both can persist for a time regardless of what their parts might think, or even whether they think at all.

A traffic jam is a bit like a simple cell that lives on roads. A termite colony, too, is like a cell that lives in a mound of earth, however it’s far more complex. Unlike a jam, it doesn’t persist by happenstance. Its parts self-organize, and that lets it build things to help itself persist. It’s organized, yet with no organizer. Millions of termites work together to ensure their joint survival, but no termite has to foresee, intend, plan, lead, control, or even be aware of any of that.

Whether it’s cars in a jam or termites in a colony or molecules in a cell, groups of parts can behave in joint ways that no individual part need notice, or even have a brain to notice anything with. Order can emerge out of chaos without an order-giver. Many smart people in several scientific fields have noticed this. In physics, it’s called complex systems; in chemistry, it’s autocatalytic sets; in biology, it’s superorganisms; in computer science, it’s complex adaptive systems; in brain science it’s emergence. In economics, it’s spontaneous order; in planning, it’s system dynamics; in philosophy it’s emergence. All amount to saying that the whole can be something besides the parts.

That applies to human groups, too. This book details some of the tools so far discovered that explain the human world. Network forces can drive human groups to do self-organized, non-planned things things that no one, not even leaders, foresee, intend, or perhaps even notice. That works for the human past—stretching at least as far back as the beginning of farming, it also works for the present, and perhaps for the future, too. It might even make sense to speak of some sort of overall species network, perhaps some sort of human swarm. If such a thing were to exist, what aspects of large-scale human behavior might it explain? What might be its network properties, its ‘physics’? Might such a thing be in any way ‘life-like’? And if so, what’s it up to?

This book tries to answer those questions. It has eight chapters. Each of the first six covers one topic: food, labor, physical resources, institutions, economies, and mental resources. Of the first five, each also introduces two network properties, making ten in all. Those properties are: autocatalysis and phase change (chapter 1), reaction networks and synergy (chapter 2), stigmergy and recursion (chapter 3), ecogenesis and non-linearity (chapter 4), and closure and autopoiesis (chapter 5). The sixth chapter addresses mental resources, including medicine and science. The seventh chapter examines what all ten network properties might mean for the definition of life itself; then it uses that to examine whether it might make sense to talk about a species-wide network. The eighth and last chapter discusses possible coming changes, including artificial intelligence, as well as how human change happens, and it suggests a possible future.