VIII. Emergent Properties (In Systems)

This is the eighth in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.


I invite you to check out my new blog on the ancient Maya. A description follows at the end of this posting.


Life is an emergent property—a property that is not present in the parts and originates only when the parts are assembled together.

Fritjof Capra

When individual parts—such as these boards—are integrated, a feature emerges and a process takes place that’s greater than the sum of the parts. None of the individual parts of a house constitute a home. Likewise, the parts of a smartphone are not smart. But put them together in a coherent manner—according to their design—and an array of advanced capabilities emerge.

When it comes to non-living systems such as books, computers, cars, tools and appliances, it’s the hoped-for or intended emergent properties that first motivated their existence. Initially, they were expressed as an imagined need, and the fulfillment of that need motivates the owner to keep it functioning through maintenance. In living but non-human systems, the emergent property is autopoeisis, the capacity to make more of itself—reproduce. In addition to this, the emergent properties of human systems include self-reflexion, inner and outer awareness, creativity, the ability to manage change and do work. What’s important to note, in all systems, is that properties emerge from the integration and coherence (functional relationship) of their component parts.

Because living systems are dynamic, constantly changing due to the capacity of their members to make choices, the established ordered arrangement at any time can break down when something new is introduced or when something happens to alter the functionality of the whole or its parts—like climate change. Whatever the source, to manage change effectively, rigidity has to give way to the more complex emerging order. The name we give to the continuous process of emergence is “evolution.” The simpler name is “growth.” 

Because living systems experience and adapt to change they grow—or they don’t. One of my earliest introductions to this idea was Grow Or Die: The Unifying Principle of Transformation by George Ainsworth-Land. It’s an expensive book now because it became a cornerstone in strategic planning and corporate transformation. I highly recommend a check to see if your library has or could order a copy. Particularly insightful, Dr. Land explains why species don’t adapt to their environments nearly so much as they adapt environments to themselves. It’s the mantra of successful entrepreneurship: “Find and need and fill it.” Facilitating emerging—higher-order—properties is how civilizations grow. If not, they die.

Contemplating Personal And Social Emerging Properties
The universe is not a place, it’s a story or an irreversible sequence of emergent events. It’s an ongoing creative event. The universe as a whole, and each being within it, is permeated with the power of emergence.  
Brian Swimme (Evolutionary Cosmologist)

Higher-order properties lie within us individually and collectively as potentials. As authors of our experience, we have the capacity to identify and realize them. The quest begins with an assessment of existing talents and motivations, and a close look at what gives us joy. The process of specifying these, can give us a sense of what we have yet to do. What unrealized potential is waiting to emerge? Size and social acceptability don’t matter. It can be as simple as choosing a different frame of mind, like deciding to do an odious job well instead of just getting it done.  It could be a change of perspective from negative to positive, or a change of a mood pattern from irritable to allowing. What emerges in instances such as these, is a more loveable self-image and confidence in the ability to change for the better. And it can transform the lives of those around us. A prominent example of this was when First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” That was an emergent moment for her, and for us—a call to rise above name-calling and blaming.

Within the image of the clouds above, barely visible on the left-hand side and seeming to connect the clouds, there’s a tiny jet-trail. Whenever I see those, I think of the many people aboard the plane, each of whom is living a story of emergence from childhood to adulthood, from having little to having much—knowledge, status, relationships or wealth. And they’re on their way to realizing more of that potential in a different place. Whether it’s to spend more time with a loved one, consider or assume a new position, build a new relationship or accept an invitation to walk on a beach, the emerging potential will likely be growthful.

Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.

Jean Houston (Visionary, Human Potentials Scholar)

From an evolutionary perspective, the individual human lifespan is so short as to appear insignificant. But from a personal perspective, it’s quite the opposite. Every individual is unique and precious, here to live and by their emerging story, ideally, advance their own higher-order being, thinking and doing. We live and breathe in an atmosphere of stories. And each of us, like the dust and water particles that form clouds, contributes to the quality and movement of our collective atmosphere. Sometimes it’s calm; other times turbulent. Always, it’s vibrant and alive.

Social innovators are people who specialize in emergent properties. They have been referred to as “emergents,” “positive change agents,” “social engineers” and “activists.” They’re in the business of moving beyond the dysfunction of the status quo, of dreaming better ways to live and work, and as soon as possible live the dream. Beyond a paycheck, wealth, status or celebrity, they want their lives to matter. They are their own people, authentic to the core, the modern-day equivalents of the “rugged individualists” who settled the American West. 

In business and industry, the emergents are developing and promoting alternatives to carbon-based energy, sustaining and improving ecosystems, preserving and managing forests, conserving wildlife and habitat, improving health and law enforcement systems, promoting nutrition, discovering applications of nanotechnology, testing energy-efficient transportation systems, and exploring the potentials of space travel. These and others like them are the visionaries, authors, life-coaches, globally conscious motivational speakers and teachers who champion improvements in every field. Emergents are easy to identify because they live principled and disciplined lives.

Less dramatic but equally deserving of the adjective “emergent,” are family members and neighbors, everyday people who are quietly living moral and ethical lives, people actively looking for ways to work more creatively, smarter and kinder with consideration for those around them. They do a good job and take pride in it, no matter how menial the work may seem to others. Opting out of popular culture, they prefer the more peaceful and substantive values of personal enrichment, fulfillment and service.

Because the contributions of emergents have survival value for the planet and all its inhabitants, I see them as paving the way toward a positive and more sustainable future. For this reason alone, they deserve to be acknowledged, encouraged, and supported—by all. 

Transcendence, emergence, and integration of the components are the very pattern of the cosmic movement.

Beatrice Bruteau

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I recently launched another weekly blog, entitled “Ancient Maya Cultural Traits.” After decades of researching and organizing information from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ethnography, and epigraphy, I began to experience the ancient Maya lifeways and worldview in my imagination. Every day. They became so potently familiar, I felt like I’d entered their world and taken on a second identity.

In June of 1998, I spent an entire night and morning imagining, then outlining The Path Of The Jaguar, a series of stories that would feature these people, their places and history. Literally overnight, I found a use for my databases and set out to learn how to tell a compelling story. Twelve years later, I self-published Jaguar Rising. Then came Jaguar Wind And Waves and Jaguar Sun.

The guideline I set for myself in writing these stories, was that every scene and situation had to pass the test of plausibility. The historical information had to be accurate, based on the latest scholarship, and the characterizations needed to be reasonable and representative of the times and patterns of ancient Maya thought customs and behavior. Also, I wanted to immerse readers in the jungle and the cities when they were new. Rather than depict the culture as the “mysterious” Maya, I present them as real people confronting universal human challenges.

I invite you to check out Ancient Maya Cultural Traits. Categories include food, trade, customs, costumes, worldview, rituals, warfare and weapons, prophecy, marriage alliances and more. Gods, goddesses and underworld demons come to life as each posting includes a related excerpt from the novels. The first topic is “blood.”   


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