The Weirdness of Emergent Behaviors

Whooping Crane in flight in Texas. USDA Photo by John Noll.

While listening to the February 17th episode of This Week in Science podcast, I learned that the whooping crane, Grus americana, which has been on the brink of extinction, was recently reintroduced to the wild in Louisiana, though their original habitat has changed. The birds are responding to this change, and thriving, by altering their appetite to include small reptiles and amphibians. Though their natural history isn’t entirely understood, it’s generally agreed that this is new behavior; it’s behavior that emerged after their habitat changed.

Or consider our cat Rosemary (gone but still in our hearts). She was a normal cat with no particular strange behaviors, until we acquired some small stuffed dragons, which she began to pick up in her mouth and carry around our house. She wasn’t nesting with them, because she didn’t gather them up in one single place; rather, she deposited them in random locations, upstairs and down, and sometimes on the stairs themselves. So this I’m also considering an “emergent behavior”, that is, an unexpected new behavior that emerges after a change in environment.

I suppose this isn’t technically emergent behavior, though. The term, I believe, actually comes from complexity theory and refers to a system which exhibits traits and behaviors that cannot necessarily be explained in terms of the parts. A single neuron, for example, is not at all capable of the higher thought processes that a brain, composed of millions of neurons, is capable of. Similarly, an individual ant is not capable of doing very much, but organize thousands of them into a colony and you get some very complex behaviors indeed (Douglas Hofstader, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, even imagined that an ant colony that was capable of rational thought).

This post isn’t meant to be scientific or a reflection of any philosophical notions, just some random thoughts that I’ve pondered throughout the years. The basic point is that emergent behaviors and properties are weird. When an organism’s or individual’s habitat or environment changes in a truly novel way, you can’t necessarily predict what the response will be. Similarly, with complex systems, you can’t necessarily predict what strange properties will show up.

That’s all I got for now. Again, my next post will probably be about our cat Nutmeg, who, because she’s kind of chubby, I’ve taken to calling “Miss Chumbly-Wumbly”. Sure it makes no sense. But neither does this post.

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