Emergence and failure of societies: first take

How do societies fail? Not just average, but also successful ones?

Historically, there are a number of complex, developed and highly-civilized societies that rose, became very successful and the, just as magnificently/incredibly fell, leaving behind testimonies of their greatness.

Jared Diamond outlines few glaring examples in his excellent book “Collapse.” Let’s take Easter Island. Its society built and dragged 80-ton 33-feet-high statues for 10-15 miles, in addition to navigating the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, also managed to cut down its rich rain-forest and doom itself. With no trees left for making canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The typical insult to a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered ever since.

Or take other examples. Failures/collapses of once-powerful societies — the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years  — or  successes of, for example, Tokugawa Japan, which reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to master a highly fragile environment. Modern times have their parallels to those of history. Rwanda, which lost millions in warfare caused by ecological pressure, and Australia, with its ambitions to overcome a rough environmental history, which still struggles to find a comprehensive solution.

Diamond contends that it’s a society’s failure to think long-term, which has many causes. One common reason is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops just like  modern wealthy Americans enjoy sufficient security, education, and retirement benefits, ignoring national as well as global issues that are already affecting their lives, indirectly, and will continue to do so increasingly for future generations.

But is it the only or even the most important problem that causes a society to fail?

Societies are complex entities, and as such failure/success factors, let alone underlying reasons, would hardly be simple to pinpoint – nor would they most probably be simple in their nature, embedding a combinations of smaller factors. There are concurrent conjectures/theories that attempt to explain away one or another aspect of functioning of societies and their subsequent lows/ups. They all, one way or another, base their claims on what is called theory of emergence.

In briefly, “emergence” – popularised in Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence” – is about how complex systems organise themselves, without any apparent direction/plan. Individual units of systems “do their own thing” without knowledge of any overarching aim/scheme, but out of this “chaos” order, pattern and system emerge. In Johnson’s book, classic emergent systems are ant colonies, cities and self-learning software, which, he claims, will bring self-organised order to the chaotic Internet in the not too distant future.

There is a need to differentiate, marked by Mark Bedau and others, between two categories of emergence:

  1. Weak emergence. Systemic phenomena that are theoretically but not practically reducible to characteristics/functioning of its composite parts. Most complexity theories (for example, modeling, simulation, system laws, etc.) study this form of emergence. Calculations required to predict the resulting phenomena are so complex as to be effectively impossible but instead, these calculations are carried out by means of simulation.
  1. Strong emergence. Systemic phenomena that are fundamentally not reducible, but are distinct and can exert downward causation on the system from which they emerge. It is mostly a subject of philosophical discourse or considered in competing conjectures/theories of human consciousness, which didn’t evolve much since Nobel laureate Roger Sperry‘s research in 1969. No simulation is possible for this type of emergence.

Why is this relevant to the question of complexity in societies and the question of collapse? There seems to be an important interface between emergence and failure/collapse of complex societies as noted by Joseph Tainter in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”

Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed. Everyone of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed. He looked for some explanation common to these sudden collapses. The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, but because of it.

According to Tainter, a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, found itself with a surplus of resources – management of this surplus made societies more complex, eventually resulting (at least for some of them) in the shift from rural- to urban-centric societies. Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive — each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output — but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity becomes a cost. Tainter’s thesis is that when a society’s elite members add a layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end-up extracting all the value from their environment possible to extract and then some more. This overstretching is what ushers complex societies into systemic collapse because, when a stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, it seems mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just refashion themselves into simpler ones? The answer Tainter gives is that when societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice is by then a huge, interlocking system not readily adjustable to change/simplification. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden incoherence of such societies as a conincidence, mistake or failure to think long-term: “Under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.” Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because no simplification fits or is satisfactory to elites.

Let’s now shift gears and look at how emergence theory is (bluntly) being applied to describing modern social frameworks. If we can think of “democracy” as meaning a system through which members of communities organize themselves, rather than a system for controlling them, our democratic systems would be getting closer to being complex, adaptive and self-organizing. But what is wrong in the transference of the insights of “emergence” to political democracy and economic systems is its false analogy between physical systems (for example, ant colonies) on the one hand, and political/social organisation on the other.

Nobody knows exactly how ants organize themselves, but it is obvious each individual ant can’t possibly have any knowledge of the overall system. In fact, ants pick up signals from chemicals called “pheromones,” which they secrete. Scientists showed that if two ants go foraging for food, the ant, which finds food closer, will return quicker, and thus deposit more pheromones than the other ant. This trail will then be followed by others, and an efficient pattern of food foraging is thus established.

Another author, Steve Marcus, in his book “Engels, Manchester and the Working Class” argues that the clear-cut separation of upper and middle classes from workers which “emerged” around the working class areas of Manchester in 19th century was too complex a system to have been planned and thought up in advance. It was perhaps not planned in advance but certainly the outcome of conscious decisions, i.e. decisions of middle and upper class people to live as far away from the workers as possible. This may not have been a planned decision, but it was conscious.

Johnson thus considers cities as classic examples of “organised complexity” or more a “self-organised complexity”. Cities are in fact – like any human society – a dynamic interaction of planning and spontaneity. No one plans in advance the complex system whereby thousands of people get off a train. But that it takes place at all is a function of the underfunding of public transport, and (not least) the decision to build the train station in the first place. Decisions of this kind may not have been simultaneous and may have aggregated over time, but they did not just “emerge” out of thousands of random local/individual decisions. Self-organised complexity interacts with a rather well-organised complexity. Johnson proceeds showing that through the generations cities replicate their basic structure, even if all the individuals and businesses change; they are “patterns in time.”

A recent example of initiating a complex social system, without a recourse to traditional, hierarchic governance system is the Zapatista movement. On August 9 2003, the Zapatistas in the state of Chiapas (Mexico) presented their newly created Zapatista municipal authorities. This was an archetypal example of self-organisation from the bottom up and (not with reference to but) against state authority. This formidable achievement has taken ten years of work in difficult circumstances. In 2000, when 500 Zapatista activists from the communities arrived in Mexico City as part of their national consulta campaign, at least half of them were ill, suffering from different infections and other illnesses. What made them ill? Poverty and a lack of basic medicines like antibiotics, which would have immediately cured most of them. They were lacking basic social, economic and health factors that are usually institutionalized and supprted by a typical centralized government.

Zapatista example proves exactly the point Johnson is trying to make, namely that when delving deeper into the theory of emergence, one discovers that emergent systems are rule-governed. In natural systems the rules are established independently of the units whereas in human society rules and norms of behaviour have to be established consciously.

Stephen Wolfram writing in his book “A New kind of Science” confirms the same idea of complexity being based on a set of simple entities. “Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex it is taken almost for granted that the phenomenon must be the result of some underlying mechanism that is itself complex. But my discovery that simple programs can produce great complexity makes it clear that this is not in fact correct.” He has devised rules of interaction for those simple entities, known as “cellular automata” which as Ray Kurzweil writes can result in “patterns that are neither regular nor completely random. It appears to have some order, but is never predictable.”

It seems therefore that there is some sort of agreement that many systems (societies, economies, etc.), themselves based on or representing simple entities, are complex in their nature and not necessarily reducible to characteristics of their parts. We do however need to differentiate complex human systems, a mixture of conscious schemes and random choices, and other complex systems (such as ant colonies) where the emerging properties of a complex system are defined by individual random choices only.