Anonymous asked in Science & MathematicsBiology · 8 years ago

What is an emergent property in biology?

the way emergence is defined on wikipedia and elsewhere is almost like its some magical quality that emerges once certain ingerdients come together in just the right proportions, etc....

also the way this famous scientist described it ( "The emergent cannot be reduced to the sum or their its components." ) seems to me like simply assigning a word (emergent) that conveniently describes a new process/function that we dont yet understand. Then after we understand the new process, we dont call it an emergent property anymore.. lol

For example, when meat is left out, eventually maggots will "appear" on the meat.. They used to think that maggots "spontaneously generated"..but once they saw flies around the meat, they understood the process by which maggots appeared on the meat, so that was the end of spontaneous generation, --a process that emerges when meat is left out in the open air for a long time..

or what about "vitalism" -way back they used to think that some lifeforce entered into inanimate material at some point, but what exactly was this lifeforce, and at what precise point did something become alive? --no one knew, so they called the idea "vitalism"

isnt the idea of emergence just a blanket word for not yet understood things?

2 Answers

  • 8 years ago
    Favorite Answer

    Not quite. An emergent property doesn't mean that things magically happen, although you're right that spontaneous generation and vitalism aren't based on evidence. An emergent property is just something that appears only at higher levels of structure and organization. It's often based on shape.

    For example:

    A sugar molecule, which contains carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms, has properties that a single carbon, oxygen, or hydrogen atom doesn't. It contains energy and can be combined into longer molecules like starch and cellulose, while the individal atoms can't be.

    A protein is made up of many amino acids, and it can form into a specialized shape through interactions between its different parts. It could be a globular protein with a specifically-shaped active site that allows it to act as an enzyme.

    An organism itself has emergent properties, too. Even if you had all of the right bones, muscles, organs, and tissues, you couldn't just arrange it any way you wanted and call it a human being. An "arm" or a "brain" or a "torso" has properties that only "emerge" when its arranged in the right way.

    I hope this makes sense? I'd be happy to provide more examples if they would help you understand.

  • 8 years ago

    Emergent does not refer to novelty. It refers to properties that are not present in individual components but which are present in the aggregate. A hydrogen molecule has properties not present in individual atoms and gather enough of them and you get a star. A sand dune has properties not found in a grain of sand. The sun burns whether or no we understand why and a cylinder of hydrogen does not release vast amounts of energy even if we do understand.

    In biology, an ecosystem has properties not found in the individual organisms that comprise it. An organism has properties not found in the tissues that comprise it. A tissue has properties not found in the cells that comprise it.

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