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Much Coming From Little

Walid ElSayed
MSc in Architecture: Computing & Design 10’11
School of Architecture and the Visual Arts/AVA
University of East London

A Critical Analysis of: Emergence From Chaos to Order, John H Holland.

January 2011

Abstract. In the absence of an established scientific Theory of emergence, John Holland in his
book employs science in exploring the emergence phenomena. This essay aims to follow
Holland’s analysis and chain of reasoning of his scientific proposal, in doing so the essay begins
by focusing on the general concepts which Holland has adapted as major themes of his study,
expanding by following his steps in exploring the concepts, and concludes by offering a
recapitulation of the core of his study of emergence and a brief illustration of the application of
emergence within architectural practice.

Emergence, Complexity, Cas, model, Mechanisms, Cgp,

Word count for Abstract: 94

Total word count (including list of illustrations & references, excluding
Abstract): 4493
Word count excluding list of illustrations, references and Abstract: 3842


Understanding Novelty and the evolution of systems has forever

represented an enormous challenge given their ‘complex’
nature. Systems evolution and ‘the rise of new features which
cannot be reduced to existing ones’ has led to a need for a
greater understanding of ‘Emergence’ Phenomena. Following
Alan Turing’s earlier steps in employing science and
Mathematics to explain natural phenomena that lay behind the
realm of science as it was believed at the time, John Holland, In
his book, attempts to base a scientific foundation For
emergence and to ‘search for Theorems that puts the study of
emergence squarely in the scientific domain’ (Holland 1998,

Holland presents a significant direction towards the awareness of

the phenomena of emergence. Through scientific investigation
and intense case studies, he explores the conditions of
emergence in order to offer a better understanding of this
complex concept. Ideas about rules, complex systems, model
buildings, mechanisms and constrained procedures, provide a
^ [Fig 1]
basis for his Chain of scientific reasoning behind emergence. Neurons
Purkinje nerve cell, SEM
Much coming from little.
A Flag of Emergence.

John Holland advocates Emergence phenomena as ‘a

ubiquitous feature of the world around us’ (Holland 1998, p.2).
Emergent Phenomena can be detected across a diverse
spectrum of systems such as neuron networks, swarms, and
chromosomes. These ‘complex’ systems are amongst those
identified as exhibiting emergent behavior. Accordingly the law
of nature seems to be emergence, which characterises the
complex systems around us. Thus, ’we will not understand life
and living organisms until we understand emergence’ (Holland
1998, p.1). [Fig1-Fig2]-[Fig 3]

Holland’s discussion of emergence is formulated from a complex

adaptive systems (cas) framework. He defines these systems as
^ [Fig 2]
‘….system[s] composed of interacting agents described in terms Neurons
of rules’ (Holland 1995, p.10), which suggest emergence to be a Colored scanning electron
property of these complex adaptive systems. This idea is further micrograph (SEM) of nerve
reflected by Steven Johnson who describes systems that exhibit cells.
emergence as complex adaptive systems.

Commencing by questioning the magnitude and density of

complexity, Holland successfully employs the notion of ‘much’
and ‘little’ as a starting point for introducing complexity as
stemming from emergence. He identifies emergence as a sense
of ‘much coming from little’ (Holland 1998, p.1). In support of his

argument he effectively turns ones attention to two different
arenas, firstly that of board games and Chess, where
‘Agreement on a few rules gives rise to extraordinarily complex
games’ (Holland 1998, p.1).

Secondly that of mathematics, such as Newton’s laws of gravity

in which any ‘move’ in the input of its defined rules reveals new
equations and mathematical statements. This is reminiscent of
‘much coming from little’ as are the complex adaptive systems
we are confronted with.

Complex systems and their global behavior is not just a sum of

the local behavior of its entities. Holland’s hypothesis proposes
^ [Fig 3.1]
that interactions within these complex systems are non-linear, Section through stem of a
resounding Paul Cilliers’s perspective of complex systems ’… not geranium.
constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the
intricate relationships between these components’ (Cilliers 1998,
p.2). Similar traits can also be seen in the study of complex
systems by Harrington.

Further Comprehension of this concept is aided by drawing on

examples of Chess, ant colonies and the central nervous system
(CNS). It is proposed that the description of these emergent
systems entails the understanding of the relations and
interconnections between its constituents.

Holland formulated the theory of genetic algorithm and his

prominent publication in 1975 was a major achievement in this
field. His study aimed ‘to improve the understanding of natural
^ [Fig 3.2]
adaptation process, and to design artificial systems having Cracked Mud
properties similar to natural systems’ (Goldberg D. 1988). Cracked mud in a dry desert
lake bed.
Holland equipped by his deep interest and expertise in processes
of natural evolution, successfully disputes the feasibility of
describing natural system such as an ant colony as only a group
of ants. An insightful exploration of their roles, interrelationships
and their collective behavior within their internal and external
changing environment would provide a more cohesive
description. He supports his argument by citing Hofstadter who
argued that the contemplation of an ant colony sheds lights on
the ample differentiation of the colony and its individual
inhabitants. The colonies reaction as a whole to the external
environment amazingly exceeds the capability of individual ants.
It reacts efficiently with all surrounding diverse conditions, lives for
years longer than its inhabitants and extends to considerably
larger areas. ^ [Fig 3.3]
The ant colony model aims to serve the notion of parts-to-whole Branching Network emerge
as campaigned by Hofstadter ‘a whole can be understood from the differentiated pattern
of growth.
completely if you understand its parts, and the nature of their
sum' (Hofstadter 1979, p.318) and this is further reiterated by ^ [Fig 3]
Holland. Emergence Phenomena

If we consider Smut’s prominent definition of ‘holism’ ‘The
tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum
of the parts’( Heylighen, F.; Cilliers, P.; and Gershenson, C. 2006),
it could be said that this scheme of nature is at the core of

In the case of non-living systems such as games, Chess cannot

be described only as a product of its components which
comprises of the Chess board and its pieces. The game is
defined by the rules, moves, the power structure, strategies and
the interactions between the different pieces to control the
board parts.

The interactions amongst a system’s entities ‘agents’ in

particular, describe the emergent behavior of the complex
adaptive system. These interactions are simply formulated by the
adaptive agents that continually adjust in response to other
similar adaptive agents in a changing environment.
The process of adaptation by the ‘agents’ is carried out by them
following a collection of simple rules. This process eventually
results in surprising outcomes. These outcomes can be seen as a
feature of complex temporal patterns which arise from the
bottom-up. [Fig 4]

[Fig 4]
The interactions have been described as ‘……coupled, context Three prints derived from the
dependent interactions. Technically these interactions, and the MicroImage software, the
resulting system, are nonlinear’ (Holland 1998, p.122). it appears software is an exploration into
that This conception of dualistic non-linear interactions portrays emergent form. Autonomous
software elements Interact
itself in terms of negative and positive feedbacks, and defines with their continually changing
the flow of interactions as feedback-loops. A similar exploration environment to create a
of the parameters of Emergent systems was undertaken by kinetic field.
Johnson (Johnson 2002). Johnson has suggested emergence in
complex systems involves a mix of positive feedback loops that
pushes systems onward and negative feedback loops that
propel systems to reach an equilibrium point.

A phenomenon survives within boundaries.


Holland emphasises on the significance of ‘rules’ in the

phenomenon and the non-chaotic nature of emergence. It is
pivotal to explore the interactions amongst a system’s
constituents in terms of the rules or laws. ‘When we observe
emergent phenomena, we ought therefore to try to discover the
rules that generate the phenomena’ (Holland 1998, p.188).

Holland’s proposal is supported by a similar argument by Steven

Johnson, in which Johnson claims that emergent systems
comprise of a multiple of agents who are dynamically
interacting in a number of different ways based on the local
rules they are exposed to. The ‘agents’ on their own are not

aware of any higher level centeralised rules or of the larger scale
impact, effect or consequences of their interactions.

Contrary to the widely accepted notion of emergence as a

phenomena associated with biological evolution, Holland in his
book goes further by considering rule-governed domains such as
games, systems with well-defined constituents and systems
defined by scientific theory (Newton’s theory of gravity). This
proposal reflects that emergence is not only limited to living
forms but extends further to these non-biological domains.

These systems have specifically been selected as the rules that

govern them can be identified easily. A profound scrutiny of
these systems draws on how very few rules or laws can generate
‘surprising complexity’ which have recognizable features and
are not just the product of random patterns.

Holland suggests ‘that the study of emergence is closely tied to

[the] ability to specify a large, complicated domain via a small
set of laws’(Holland 1998, p.123). If we take chess for example,
this ‘animated’ complex system can be said to be governed by
distinguishable simple rules. The dynamic change in this system
over time, which is the fluctuating arrangements of the pieces in
a game of chess means that these invariant rules practically
govern the variables. The dynamic variation in their [Fig 5]
arrangements leads to unpredictable sophistication which yields IF [Stimulus] Then [Response]
Clause Example.
complexity and different patterns, nevertheless and more
importantly consistencies do appear within these patterns. The
same could be said in respect of Newton’s gravity laws, if we
consider the variation in the orbit of planets along their path in
galaxy systems.

On this ground it follows that in a way the rules or laws are the
generating force behind ‘complexity’, but it is the continual
change and possibilities of fluctuation in the patterns that result
in the creation of endless emergence. Due to the endless
possibilities of pattern formation, for example the possible
positions of pawns on a chess board means this emergence is
effectively perpetual in nature.

Accordingly an important aspect of the thesis Holland put

forwards in his book then is that a crucial key in resolving the
mystery of emergence comes from the process of extracting the
underlying governor rules that can be achieved by recognizing
the mutual features and patterns within the ever changing
complexity outcomes that he calls ‘regularities’. It follows
therefore that understanding emergence thoroughly involves
the process of extracting procedures which result in regularities
apart from any other attendant details, referred to as

Computer based models are used consistently as a tool in

Holland’s investigation of emergence as he suggests that ‘the

computer is like an automated stove: once the recipe is inserted,
the delicacy described emerges’ (Holland 1998, p.17).

By exploring complexity in these models and eliminating the un-

salient details, we can realise a ‘repetition’ or ‘regularities’. this
set of observable regularities almost certainly necessitates an
These regularities enable observer to build a set of common
instructions ’subroutines’ in the form of ‘IF [ stimulus ] THEN [
response ]’. These are called ‘learning actions ‘which are at the
heart of the model building process. A ‘computer-based
realization’ of the rules and those ‘allowable interactions’
supports the recognition of the emergent patterns. [Fig 5]

Models, Mechanisms and Constrained generating

procedures (cgp). Understanding chaos through order

Throughout the book Holland highlights the importance of

‘modeling’ and its subsequent use in the study of emergence.
‘The critical steps in Constructing a model are selection of salient
features and laws (generators and transition functions)
governing the model’s behavior’ (Holland 1998, p.224).

Arguably, although the ‘inability to anticipate’ is widely

accepted as an aspect of emergence phenomena, Holland
suggests that science is based on model construction and that
well-comprehended scientific models are crucial in the study of
emergence as they play a part in facilitating our predictions. In
support of his argument he has cited a definition taken from the
American heritage dictionary where it states that ‘A [model is] a
tentative ideational structure used as a testing device’. It has
been suggested that ‘models, above all, make anticipation and
prediction possible’ (Holland 1998, p.11).

In the case of games, Holland suggests an ‘observer who has an

omniscient view’ is still unable to predict the outcome of the
game and will still be in the same position as the individual
players due to the endless possibilities that the course of the
game may take. It follows that where the players are adapting
to each other emergence will always be present.

Holland’s attempts to structure the phenomena through

modeling methodology comes close to Peter Cariani’s outlook
of ‘The emergence relative to a model’ which ‘sees emergence
as the deviation of the behavior of a physical system from an
observer’s model of it’( Cariani 1989, p.779).

Adapting Modeling methodology raises the need to explore

emergence by describing these emergent systems in terms of
their elementary mechanisms. By using mechanisms as building
blocks an observer can construct a model that exhibits
emergence. The term ‘mechanism’ has been defined by

Holland as a set of agents, initial ‘states’ and rules that
determine and constrain the agents’ behavior.

His discussion takes account of the rules of neural systems,

checkers and other models and in doing so he lays out a
general formula that covers these amongst other models.

Interestingly, it is suggested that the state of a system at one time

together with its interaction with the external environment
enables the mechanisms and subsequently the system, to
determine the state of itself in subsequent stages. A process
known as ‘system evolving’.

Holland offers the term ‘Tree of moves’ to portray the notion of

system states. The root is the initial state of a system and the
branches lead to the states that can be attained from the lower
levels in the tree. The leaves are the ending states that
determine the outcome of the emergent process. Holland
illustrates how the ending state (leaves) grow so rapidly even
when the states at the lower level are simple. [Fig 6]
Tree of Moves
Tracing paths in the tree of moves can define ‘strategies’ which Part of a game tree for tic-tac-
guide the emergent system behavior in any possible situation.
Repeated processes enable the system to define a feasible
strategy. [Fig 6]

The mechanisms as building blocks of models and their

interconnections, constrain the behavior and the possible
outcomes within the system. This constrained dynamic behavior
has been described by (Bonta, M. and protevi, J.2008) later as
‘focused systematic’ behavior which emergent structure
enables through constraining the action of its component parts.

The process of building the models from a collection of

mechanisms and the procedures defining their local
connections are referred to as ‘constrained generating
procedure ‘cgp’ - a hallmark of emergent systems.

drawing on the path of these ‘cgp’ which involve an

understanding of the functions and rules in term of the system’s
mechanism, Holland discusses how these mechanisms ‘respond [Fig 7]
to actions (or information), processing that input to produce The Lever
Example of Simple mechanism
resultant actions (or information) as output’ (Holland 1998,

The simple lever is used as a working example of a simple ‘cgp’

in support of the notion. Under simple rules and functions which
form a simple mechanism the action of pulling down one end
(input) results in a generating force at the other end (output)
that is multiplied by the ratio of the lever arms. [Fig 7]

It can be said that most models involve more than one
mechanism. Therefore it is important to understand the networks
that link mechanisms which Holland calls ‘networks’ or ‘cgp’s
that define the diverse emergent models and systems.

The Cgp’s framework as proposed by Holland reflects a fixed

connection within and between mechanisms which raise
questions on whether this framework is suitable to describe
emergence in mobile agents’ environments such as an ant

However, in response to this, Holland suggests that the cpg’s

framework allows a system to accommodate changes in its
geometry. A cgp can alter its connections and its collection of
mechanisms as long as they include a type of mechanism called
‘processors’. Thus, the cgp’s can alter their structure to reflect
the ever changing pattern of interaction in a process called self-
reproduction. Based on this notion, Holland introduces ‘genetic
algorithm’ and employs it into the cgp’s framework.

Significantly, Holland has provided a dynamic framework that

particularly describes the mechanisms as the building blocks of a
subassembly, which if combined with other similar subassemblies
form a level of complexity. This level governs what emerges at
the higher levels in nested hierarchies, where successively higher
levels of complexity require sequentially lower levels to emerge.
The emerged Macro-complexity increases proportionally with
the increase in Micro-mechanisms and networks.

An observer has to conclude the cgp’s that generate

emergence then discover the rules that govern the system
entities. This means that an observer practically needs to reduce
his complex observation. Holland thus puts forward reductionism
as an approach for a deeper understanding of the multitude of

It’s all in the eyes of the beholder

Reductionism is based on the idea of reducing complex

phenomenon to their simplest constituents to gain a greater
understanding of the complexity. Holland In his thesis
acknowledges that to explore the multitude of Emergent
phenomena, reductionism should be considered as a
methodology. He points out that ‘emergence in rule-governed
systems comes close to being the obverse of reduction’(Holland
1998, p.8) which is in sync with the view of Goodenough and
Deacon that ‘By starting from wholes and moving down into
parts, one is moving in the opposite direction from which things
arise’ (Goodenough and Deacon 2006, p.854).

Holland’s ‘reductionistic’ approach which aims for a deeper
understanding of the phenomena by decomposing the
emergent system into mechanisms, networks and interactions
also has a mutual element with Kauffman (1971, cited in Wimsatt
2002) ‘A reductive explanation of a behavior or a property of a
system is one which shows it to be mechanistically explicable in
terms of the properties of and interactions among the parts of
the system’. The notion of reduction is based on the ground of
considering emergence as resultant of mechanisms and
interactions within boundaries and constraints, thus, any
emerged complexity can be reduced to these interactions.

Holland suggests that a complex phenomenon can be reduced

to simple laws. In demonstration of his notion he puts forward
that if we are to consider ‘reductionism’, on its inverse we will
need to add new levels (laws) to the simple description that
define the system. These new laws in the higher levels are
considered to be consequences of the fundamental laws in the
lower levels. An Understanding of this hierarchy of ‘levels of
definitions’ plays a key role in the understanding of emergence.

His hypothesis seeks to define the basic laws that describe the
lower-levels of a system which he calls ‘Microlaws’, in order to
understand the complex outcome in the higher levels that
generate the multitude of phenomena. An extension of this
methodology has been proposed by Steven Johnson in his study
of emergence which he describes as ‘The movement from low-
level rules to higher-level sophistication’ (Johnson 2002, p.18).

In search of a theory.

In the absence of an overarching theory, Holland attempts to

define criteria for emergence in which one can understand and
identify when encountered with this phenomenon.
By employing the concept of the ‘whole’ being more than the
‘sum’ of its part as a starting point for understanding emergence
it is implied that phenomena are to be understood in terms of
the interplay between the parts of the whole and not as a sum
of these parts. The generated complex system is formed through
the relations and interconnections between the system’s
constituents in non-linear interactions. In other words, the
emergent whole always goes beyond its parts qualitatively. For
example the coherence of a swarm of ants can never be traced
back to the behavior of a single ant.

Even though emergence is associated with chaos, Holland in his

studies has attempted to shed light on the order underpinning
this phenomenon. Emergence arises as a consequence of

relationships amongst the systems agents that interact under
simple un-centralised rules over time.

It follows that for a deep understanding of emergence,

observers should start by establishing system models as a
problem-solving and measuring device in their exploration of the

By distinguishing the communal interaction between agents and

their mutual temporal consequences ‘regularities’ a model can
be constructed. An observer to the phenomenon seeks to
recognise the mechanisms, rules, interactions and procedures
that underpin these models.

The outcome possibilities of any interactions between the

mechanisms of these models are restricted by non-linear
interaction rules.

When considered within the context of constrained generating

procedures, changes in a systems environment result in the
mechanisms composing subassemblies within the micro level,
which if combined with other subassemblies form a level of
complexity. This level governs complexity arising at the higher
macro levels in a hierarchical manner which evolves and
provide systems with an ability to alter their geometry over time.

Emergence within Architecture practice

Architecture is learning.

Holland’s theory of emergence introduces a revolutionary

approach to exploring processes and systems involved in
creating forms and complexity through emergence. It focuses
on the processes behind the creation of a form rather than
seeing the form as determined. The form in light of the
emergence perspective is seen as a product of a
morphogenetic process.

In this context, parts-to-whole notion, feedbacks, genetic

algorithms and the form-finding processes formulates key marks
that seem to be crucial in understanding the application of
emergence in architecture. ^[Fig 8]
The Micromultiple House
Architectural practices have adopted differing attitudes and Design is based on a mass-
approaches over the centuries in terms of the parts to whole producible system
notion. If we consider the architects of the renaissance era we implemented as an
interconnected network of
see how they were predominantly influenced by the renaissance
small, flexible bands.
itself and so the design process focused less on the building and

engineering side of things but rather on the decorative and
proportions element of design.

It follows that even if a ‘part’ is more specialized than the whole,

it is the whole that will lead to evolution of a system, not the
individual part in isolation. This leads us once again to
emergence which is based on the notion that the emergent
whole will always be qualitatively superior to its individual parts.

currently the architectural application of the Parts-to-whole

concept requires the recognition of building without a single
fixed form. Greg Lynn 2006, has suggested that ‘Architecture has
a responsibility to express parts-to-whole relationships and
hierarchy and not to propose buildings as seamless monolithic
hulking masses’. Currently the Parametric modeling approach
has been introduced in architecture to make accessible the
[Fig 9.1]
idea of parts-to- whole and several architectural designs are
now parametric designs that reflect parts-to-whole relations.

An extension to parts to whole concept which has been

adopted by Architectural firms is that of ‘system thinking’. A
‘system’ as defined by Austrian Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy is
‘an entity which maintains its existence through the mutual
interaction of its parts.’

Emergence is associated with ‘systems thinking’ in that the

interactions of individual parts or constituents of a system give
rise to properties which are not properties of the individual parts
if looking at them individually. Russ Ackoff, a prominent
campaigner of ‘systemic thinking’ believed that the
Architectural profession embraced this concept through the
design process, where the desired building is identified and then
working backwards the individual parts are identified. ^[Fig 9.2]

^[Fig 9]
The employment of genetic algorithms and mathematics as a Urban Beach (Roof Canopy)
generator of emergent systems that have been discussed in Design aims to use a non-
Holland’s book led to an establishment of solid ground for an hierarchical patterning of
small, interlaced units, or cells.
intense application of algorithms to Architecture that employ
The position and geometry of
mathematics to generate pattern based organization. This each cell was determined by
digital revolution permits more control over a form’s geometry in shading requirements, required
the morphogenetic design process. shear and moment reactions,
and also by the position and
behavior of neighbor cells.
Form-finding processes have been introduced within
architecture with early experiments by Feri Otto.
‘Bioconstructivism’- is a contemporary architectural tendency
which introduces a new paradigm that is infused with biological
aspirations and aims to engage the concept of emergence
within architectural practice. Tom Wiscombe, Greg Lynn, Karl
Chu and others, are currently combining biology into their
designs where a bias toward the emergence concept has led to
developing Architectural and structural experiments that adapt
to the demands of emergence.

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Neurons:
Purkinje nerve cell, SEM
(Source: Mccarthy, D. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Figure 2: Neurons:
Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of nerve cells.
(Source: Gschmeissner, S., SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Figure 3.1: Section through stem of a geranium which reveal geometrical

Arrangement of the bundles of differentiated vessels and cells
Which produces complex structure capable of differential
movement. All the cells have a structural Role and structure
capacity emerges from their interactions.
(Source : Emergence. Morphogenetic design strategies.
Architectural design Magazine)

Figure 3.2: Cracked Mud:

cracked mud in a dry desert lake bed,Rosamund Lake,
California, USA
(Source: Ravenswaay, D.V., SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Figure 3.3: Branching Phenomena:

Branching Network emerge from the differentiated pattern of
(Source: Pedrazzini, C. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Figure 4: Rules-governed emergence:

Three prints derived from the MicroImage software, the software is
an exploration into emergent form. Autonomous software
elements Interact with their continually changing environment to
create a kinetic field.
(Source : Programming Cultures. Art and Architecture in the Age
of Software. Architectural design , Vol 76 No 4)

Figure 5: If[ ] Then[ ] Clause

Illustration of subroutines in ant colony that function as a learning
(Source : Holland, J. 1998, Emergence: From Chaos to Order)

Figure 6: Tree of Moves

Part of the tree game for tic-tac-toe.
(Source : Holland, J. 1998, Emergence: From Chaos to Order)

Figure 7: The Lever

used by Holland, J. as an example of simple mechanism
(Source : Holland, J. 1998, Emergence: From Chaos to Order)

Figure 8: The Micromultiple House

Design is based on a mass-producible system implemented as an
interconnected network of small, flexible bands.
(Source : Emergent – Tom Wiscombe)

Figure 9: Urban Beach

Design aims to use a non-hierarchical patterning of small,
interlaced units, or cells. The position and geometry of each cell
was determined by shading requirements, required shear and
moment reactions, and also by the position and behavior of
neighbor cells.
(Source : Emergent – Tom Wiscombe)


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