I am a giant fan of WNYC’s podcast, Radio Lab by Abumrad and Krulwich.
This week they did a piece called Emergence that centers around order from disorder when there is an intelligence involved. Sort of the un-law of thermodynamics, which Wikipedia’s randomly collected information from limitless unknown sources describes as the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium. Entropy is essentially decay.
OK I get that. If you knock over a book shelf the books don’t tend toward order, but disheveled stacks. There seems to be much in biology that goes the other way though. This Emergence thing discusses how ants, which seems to be dumb “like” posts, do some pretty hip things with all of the picnic finding, and farm building and twig dragging. The idea is that they are stupid individually on a scale that makes posts look pretty bright. But as a collective, they, like bees and other tiny gadgets, are oddly clever, if not terribly efficient.
The title of this piece comes from a book of the same name by steven johnson http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/ (this link may help him keep his #1 “steven” google rating) who also wrote the rather forgettable text, that everything bad is good for you, which was a tome devoted to convincing his wife and himself that he wasn’t killing time by killing time. Anyway, the idea is that groups of folks can be right on average. And if you get 750 folks to guess the weight of an OX the average will be strikingly close to right. There is some weird math underlying the universe as we know it and facts emerge from chaos… bad summary of the piece but I am in a hurry here.
So are we as an ant colony smarter as a collective than we are as individuals? I know that minsky wrote about this a great deal in his book society of mind, although one can argue that marvin is now crazy, his point was sort of the other end of the spectrum. Instead of saying that we are smarter as a group, he denies the concept of self as a semantic convenience. We aren’t a “self,” but just a collection of 300 or so brain centers, and that these are divied up in some infinitely regressive fashion into the bit of electrons and atom bits of which they are derived. We are not individuals at all, but mini-collectives. In the radio piece one guy comments how if you take out some neurons that are not thinking about your coffee cup, but as an assembly they are. Wherein does “coffee cup” reside.
Acourse this is also a John Donne thing with each of us a part of the continent as bells are toling for the collective, not the individual. I take both sets of data and see some continuity as I zoom way in and way out that we are fractal like, ion that the patterns are the same zoomed infinitely in to Horton-Hears-a-Who size out to the all-of humanity scale. I have some friends who have spoken to me so much about their big idears that I am certain (insofar as certainty exists and that I do as well) that my brain think they are one of my brain centers. The fact is that the thinking I do id informed by my memories, but I don’t parse what I thought up from what I was told, so the lines of distinction blur pretty fully. My brain thinks that several other folks I have met exist in my brain alone. They are my brain centers I suppose. Individuality is a myth in this line of thought. Well OK, I get that too.
But if our concept of self is a convenience, then why do I care so much when I miss breakfast? Moreover some groups can seem to agree on how much an ox weighs on average, but the brilliant group of folks who sit in our Congress building on average think that oxen are blue with six legs. Group think is only good for certain types of tasks it seems. Ants do quite well without leaders. Like bees they have queens, but these chicks don’t shout many directives. The just act queenly.
OK more on this obtuse reflection later…