Sync, Emergence and Social Action

Photo taken and supplied by Brian Voon Yee Yap...
Cathedral Termite Mound

There is, in the world, a natural drive towards unity.  This may be hard to believe when one looks around and sees all the obvious disunity but it is still true.  There is even synchrony between inanimate objects – as discovered in 1665 by Christiaan Huygens, the inventor of the pendulum clock. Huygens was confined to his bedroom for a few days and during this time he noticed that two of his pendulum clocks, hanging side by side, oscillated together without variance.  Even when he interrupted the swing of the pendulums within a half an hour they were once again swinging in synchrony.

Synchrony is not a rare occurrence in the world.  In the words of Steven Strogatz, the author of the book, Sync – the emerging science of spontaneous order

At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync. It pervades nature at every scale from the nucleus to the cosmos…thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash in unison, without any leader or cue from the environment. Trillions of electrons march in lockstep in a superconductor, enabling electricity to flow…In the solar system, gravitational synchrony can eject huge boulders out of the asteroid belt and towards Earth…Even our bodies are symphonies of rhythm, kept alive by the relentless, coordinated firing of thousands of pacemaker cells in our hearts.  In every case, these feats of synchrony occur spontaneously, almost as if nature had an eerie yearning for order. (1)

An interesting feature of sync is that, unlike rhythm – which means something repeats its behaviour at regular intervals – sync means two (or more) things happen simultaneously.  It is often rhythmical and repetitive but isn’t necessarily so. In organic systems, sync takes on even more exciting possibilities, producing in ants and bees and human minds (to really name but a few areas) a phenomenon known as emergence.

What features do all these systems share? In the simplest terms they solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent “executive branch.” They are bottom-up systems, not top down…  In a more technical language, they are complex adaptive systems…  In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behaviour that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighbourhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books.  The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence. (2)

The beauty of emergence is in its very simplicity and mystery.  How does a seed know how to build a flower?  Or the single-celled organism that we all begin as, know how to build a human being?  Clearly emergence is a good example of a complex, non-linear dynamic system obeying an ‘order’ that is difficult to see.

But it is also a good example of how simple actions taken in synchrony as part of a unified whole can result in outcomes that far exceed both the size of the action and its originator.  And perhaps then there is a parallel between emergence in nature and social order and emergence in social action?

Perhaps social actions – no matter how small – when they obey this operational principle – synchrony as part of a whole – are the bottom-up changes that need to take place in the world?  Perhaps it will be the small, individual acts of justice and equality and love that will transform the planet while we are all waiting for top-down solutions?

(1) Steven Strogatz, Sync, p.1- Hyperion 2003.

(2) ibid p.18


  1. “In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behaviour that lies one scale above them…”

    I would imagine you know something of the ‘morphic resonance/field’ theory proposed by the English biologist Rupert Sheldrake. But if not you might enjoy reading the brief summary you’ll find here (and especially the section titled ‘The Allegory Of The Television Set’). Somehow I suspect you’ll find it quite ‘resonant’ with what you’ve outlined here. 😉

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