Ants aren't smart, ant colonies are.1

Deborah Gordon, Stanford University Biologist

Life is full of systems. Our roads have a system, and so does the grocery store. The computer I'm typing this on is a system, and the car I drive is a system. 

We humans have designed many of these systems, such as the computer or roads. 

But we did not design many of the most important system. Language would be an example of this. No one person or group of people has ever sat down and decided once and for all how a given language should work. Languages emerge over time and with contributions made by a variety of people. 

It's incredible to think about, but many of the things we take for granted just sort of happened over time. We didn't plan them. 

What's even more incredible to think about is how these systems add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. 

A car is the sum of its parts. Each piece is connected, and so long as they are connected properly and function normally, you'll get a car. Other systems are much more than the sum of their parts. 

Consider ants as an example. 

Ants thrive in all kinds of environments, successfully fend off predators, find food to feed potentially millions of individual members, and do all of this with no one single ant in charge. Each ant has a role and acts only on the information immediately present to that ant. There are no blueprints or manuals ants consult. The order just happens. 

What is the ant's secret? It's their colony. 

An ant colony is more than just a bunch of ants. As biologist Deborah Gordon says, "Ants aren't smart, ant colonies are." If an ant spends its time digging to make more room for the colony, it doesn't worry about finding food. The colony takes care of that. The ant finding food doesn't concern itself with making and maintaining a suitable shelter - the colony has it covered. We could say that ants adapt to their surroundings, but it would be more accurate to say that ant colonies adapt, not the individual ants themselves. As Michael Mauboussin writes:

If you want to understand an ant colony, don't ask an ant. It doesn't know what's going on. Study the colony.2

The idea that a system can be something more than just the sum of its parts is true of a lot of human systems as well. 

No one guides or directs our financial system. It has emerged over time, and it continues to evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. 

The human body itself is a complex system which adds up to more than just a bunch of tissue and bones. Humans have consciousness and emotions. We think and feel. To summarize the human mind with only a description of brain tissue would be to drastic understatement. 

The challenge these complex systems provide is that they are hard to anticipate. When thing A happens, how does thing B respond? It can be very hard to say beforehand when the system is complex enough. The emergent order these systems produce doesn't necessarily follow the same rules as each individual part. Just like studying an ant won't tell you about a colony, studying the parts of complex systems won't necessarily help you understand the system as whole. And this doesn't even get at what happens when something breaks.

A car or a computer can be fixed when they break down. The human body or the financial system on the other hand? When they break, sometimes there is no "fixing", only managing or hoping things just work out. 

Too often we see a complex system and the emergent order it creates and we want to intervene - we want to make it better or avoid some kind of failure. This is noble (much of the time anyway). But sometimes these systems are just beyond us. We can participate, and maybe even improve - but there is a limit as to what we can do. 

For however hard this thought may be, there is something wonderful about it. As Christians, we would describe this as the creative power of an almighty God. When God creates, he doesn't just create order or function. He creates life - he creates things which a designed to grow and change. He can look at each part and see how they can add up to more than just their sum. 

It's both beautiful and terrifying. 

1. Quoted by Michael J. Mauboussin in Think Twice, pg. 73

2. Michael J Mauboussin, Think Twice, pg. 76