Part of series: Statehood

The Emergence of Man

Mehmet Karatay @ Wikimedia Commons (GNU FDL)

~1,400 words


Last modified: December 28th, 12,017 HE

Atoms form molecules. Molecules form proteins. Proteins make up cells. Cells make up organs. Organs form individuals. Individuals form societies.

In this second part of my Statehood series, I will talk about how the Universe is built, what life is and why human life is distinct from other forms. This is all done as a precursor to my discussion of statehood in subsequent parts. I make no claims that these are the answers, or that they are uniquely mine and never-before-espoused, but simply that they are the answers that seem to make the most sense to me, and are (hopefully) well-stated.

I’ll attempt to demonstrate the following:

Turtles all the way down

Go and have a play with Nested for a couple minutes. Also helpful may be the Kurzegesagt – In a Nutshell video from which this post’s epigram is sourced. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Done? Good, those’ll help to illustrate the point I want to make.

First, a definition: Emergence describes small things forming bigger things that have different properties from the sum of their parts. At it’s most basic level, all is but quarks and electrons.1 At its most complex, one has the entire Universe [substitute your own belief for the top level (or lack thereof) here]. These two incredibly disparate concepts are two ends of a thread that snakes its way through all existence. For example, quarks combine to create protons and neutrons. These subatomic particles come together with electrons to form atoms, with their own emergent properties. These join to form molecules, and so on.

This continues up the chain of complexity until we find ourselves at the level that we inhabit—this is the level of multicelluar organisms such as ourselves, dogs and fish. This is not the culmination of the process, however much it may seem to be from our own place within it. Ants form an ant colony. Fish form a school. These colonies and schools form local ecosystems, which form up into an environment. This continues up the chain of complexity until it reaches whatever the upper bound may be—I shall say the entire Universe.

What is life? (Baby, don’t hurt me)

So what is life? If everything boils down the same composite lifeless matter, governed by the rules of quantum physics rather than of biology, whence life? The answer to this, too, lays in emergence.

We, as humans, tend to group and label things to make them easier to understand. This is evidenced in the previous section: an ant doesn’t really exist, except in the consciousness of the humans that observe its constituent parts and the behaviour emerging thereof. Life, then, is but handy name we have given to group those constructs that exhibit the emergent behaviours we identify as: movement; respiration; sensation; growth; reproduction; excretion; and nutrition. This, too, is a continuous spectrum, with viruses at the lower end and some sort of super-mobile, super-shagging, super-shitting beings at the upper e—wait just a minute…

Blissful Ignorance

One emergent property of life is awareness. Living things are aware of the world around them, no matter how simply, and can respond to stimuli. However, this is an awareness limited to a living thing’s peers in complexity. A dog is aware of dogs, and cats, and trees, but not cells. This works both ways: a dog cell has no concept of the dog of which is part, an ant no concept of its colony.

This does not hold true for humans, however. Through microscopes we can observe our own building blocks. Through politics and sociology (i.e., macroscopes), we can observe the things created when we group together. Why, then, are we afforded this luxury?

Oh, the humanity

What is it that separates a human from all other organisms? The answer lies in—say it with me now—emergence. It is not just things that acquire emergent properties; those properties themselves can produce further emergence.

In Freud’s writings, he proposed three elements that composed the psyche. The three elements were the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the instinctive, instant- and self-gratifying element of the psyche. A cell responds to its environment. Given a stimulus, it will respond predictably. There is no sense of the cell thinking these things through, it operates purely on instinct. A living cell possesses an id.

The ego is said to be the realistic, restraining influence on the id. The ego emerges from the id behaviour of many cells forming an organism. The ego is aware of the external world and how that impacts on the desires of the id. Another term for the ego is sentience. In a sentient organism, instincts are held in check by learned experience. Rather than simply chasing a faster prey animal, a smart predator will hide in wait for it to come past. However, beyond this recognition of the environment and its impositions, the animal will be held in check only by its environment; if a rabbit reproduces more than the available resources can support, numbers will die off until the balance is restored again. During this cull, each rabbit will continue, heedless, as before. They are unaware of anything larger than themselves.

The superego is the third and final component. The superego is aware of, and above, both the id and the ego. It is also aware of itself. It is the moral, self-aware component of the psyche. Another term for the superego is sapience. Whereas a highly-developed ego can form complex plans and predict cause and effect to some degree, the superego rules on weighty issues of right and wrong. If the id wants nourishment, and the only thing around is a baby’s candy, the ego will tell the id how to take it from its owner. It is the responsibility of the superego to hold both in check for higher moral reasons. Whereas other organisms respond to environment stimuli, only humans (as far as we are aware) have developed this superego.


Emergence is the phenomenon of complexity arising from simplicity. Through this process, reality is fractal. From the building blocks of all matter, we build up to the organism level, where humans are found. Life at this level is defined by sentience, except for human life. They have, uniquely, developed the superego—the moralistic element of consciousness—and achieved sapience.

But back to the ant colony. If we accept that an ant is a sentient form of life, and is composed of a sub-sentient form of life, does it not follow that an ant colony is equally at least a sentient form of life? It strikes me as impossible that something defined as being more than the sum of its parts could, in this one area, be less.

This leads to a further question: what is different about what emerges from a combination of humans? We, uniquely, are aware of our own existence. Thus, where the ant is obliterated in the creation of the colony, and the fish in that of the school, a human cannot be—we are aware of both ourselves, and of the higher levels. With this awareness comes the ability to accept and reject those higher levels. This will be dealt with in the next part of the series.


  1. Dear readers from the future: please replace quarks and electrons with whatever may be your time’s lowest-level discovery. ↩︎