2 + 2 = Apples

2 + 2 = Apples October 21, 2016

In a 1911 article on “The Ant Colony as Organism,” William Morton Wheeler argued that an ant colony was not only organism-like but an actual organism: “Like a cell or the person, it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution…neither a thing nor a concept, but a continual flux or process.”

As elaborated by Kevin Kelly (Out of Control), Wheeler “started calling the bustling cooperation of an insect colony a ‘superorganism’ to clearly distinguish it from the metaphorical use of ‘organism.’ He was influenced by a philosophical strain at the turn of the century that saw holistic patterns overlaying the individual behavior of smaller parts. The enterprise of science was on its first steps of a headlong rush into the minute details of physics, biology, and all natural sciences. This pell-mell to reduce wholes to their constituents, seen as the most pragmatic path to understanding the wholes, would continue for the rest of the century and is still the dominant mode of scientific inquiry. Wheeler and colleagues were an essential part of this reductionist perspective, as the 50 Wheeler monographs on specific esoteric ant behaviors testify. But at the same time, Wheeler saw ‘emergent properties’ within the superorganism superseding the resident properties of the collective ants. Wheeler said the superorganism of the hive ‘emerges’ from the mass of ordinary insect organisms. And he meant emergence as science—a technical, rational explanation—not mysticism or alchemy.”

Emergence implied that superorganisms dissolved “the duality of body/mind or whole/part.” It was a different order of causation. “According to fellow philosopher C. Lloyd Morgan, the concept of emergence signaled a different variety of causation. Here 2 + 2 does not equal 4; it does not even surprise with 5. In the logic of emergence, 2 + 2 = apples. ‘The emergent step, though it may seem more or less saltatory [a leap], is best regarded as a qualitative change of direction, or critical turning-point, in the course of events,’ writes Morgan in Emergent Evolution, a bold book in 1923.”

Inevitably, Morgan turned to music to explain what was at stake, quoting lines from Browning: “And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man / That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.”

(Photo by Wing-Chi Poon.)

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