Emergent Order in Inner Space

Birds moving in unplanned, emergent synchrony.

The concept of emergent order — of complex systems arranging themselves out of thin air — is, I’ll warrant, pretty counterintuitive. Despite the fact that its effects are visible just about everywhere we look, many people find the notion more or less ridiculous on its face. It seems like magical thinking. And especially when it comes to organizing human activity, the vision of an unregulated free-for-all can be downright unsettling. It just feels better to believe somebody is at the wheel, and that some sort of reliable structure exists to prevent things going off the rails. “We need a conductor, dammit!”

The visceral distrust in emergent, spontaneous order is strange, since not only is the evidence quite overwhelming that emergent order can be relied upon (from markets to the Internet), but because it appears, quite literally, in our very DNA. Recent advances in biology show that the phenomenon of emergent order is present, for instance, at the most basic functioning of gene-protein conversion. For a delightfully narrated explanation of this story, check out the Radio Lab podcast “Stochasticity” (minute 42+), but the short version is this: Biologists have “seen” emergent order in real-time at the molecular level. There is now a method to make proteins glow as they are transcribed by genes, revealing one of the most basic activities of organic life — gene-protein transcription. Before doing much observation, biologists assumed the process would unfold in a mechanical, orderly, clockwork-like fashion. But no.

Instead, as genes transcribed individual proteins, they were discovered to be doing their work in a random, scattered, even “sloppy” manner, according to the science writer Carl Zimmer. No fine orchestration, just a cacophony of individual activity marching to the beat of its own drum. Zimmer notes, somewhat dismayed, that our well-functioning magnificent bodies are “built on a foundation of chaos.” 

Yet “somehow all of this sloppiness has got to be tamed,” he says, if we are to function as living, breathing, sentient creatures. And indeed it is tamed. Somehow, in ways that are still not entirely understood, a “song emerges like a phantom” from the cacophony. And not, mind you, by some carefully calibrated filtering mechanism like a conductor directing elements of the noise into an ordained order. No, it is as if the noise is filtering itself.

Economists have been describing this type of phenomenon for centuries, at least within the realm of commerce. Adam Smith explained emergent order as one in which “every individual intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in so many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” Robert Nozick in State of Nature further clarifies, saying that “an invisible hand explanation explains what looks to be the product of someone’s intentional design, as not being brought about by anyone’s intentions.” In other words, the hand is invisible not because it is deftly hiding in the shadows, but because it isn’t there at all. It’s like that phantom song, arising out of nowhere.

Nozick goes on to say that “There is a certain lovely quality to explanations of this sort. They show how some overall pattern or design, which one would have thought had to be produced by individuals or groups successfully attempting to realize the pattern, instead was produced and maintained by a process that in no way had the overall pattern or design ‘in mind.’” 

Yet Nozick highlights an important distinction about different kinds of self-arrangement which sheds light (so to speak) on the sloppy, chaotic glowing-gene activity. Filtering processes are one way that chaotic activity is channeled or harnessed into some distinct pattern, but the other type, known as an Equilibrium process, is more pertinent here. In an Equilibrium process, Nozick says, “each component part responds or adjusts to ‘local’ conditions, with each adjustment changing the local environments of others close by, so that the sum of the ripples of the local adjustments constitutes or realizes [a pattern].”

This kind of natural harmonizing accounts not only for the rise and function of human economies, but of ecologies as well, including the very tiny ecologies at the subcellular level. Is it really such a startling surprise, then, to see the phenomenon of emergent order at the very roots of genetic activity? Well yes, it kind of is. 

This is because generations of economists have been working to open our eyes to the reality of spontaneous order in human affairs. Most people, therefore, are aware of the “invisible hand” even if they aren’t naturally inclined to trust it. But by associating the phenomenon of emergent order with the wills and ambitions of the Butcher, the Brewer, and the Baker, it tends to isolate it in popular consciousness to human activities alone. It ends up feeling like a human invention of sorts (though of course it isn’t). 

Since economists have had such relatively low success convincing even their own profession (Neo-Keynesians and “Planners” generally) of the reliability of emergent order, it’s worth emphasizing just how deeply the principle runs. Rather than operating only within the sphere of human markets, emergent order is fundamental to the biological underpinnings of life. For those inclined to reflexively favor “emergency orders” from central command over an emergent order bubbling up from below, perhaps the realization that order arises from chaos in our genes can open the mind. The potential for improving the human condition in unplanned ways is simply too vast to ignore.