No single neuron in our brains is self-aware. Nor is any neuron aware of the brain’s system of organization. Individually, a neuron is useless. Even 10 or 100 neurons are not very useful. But wire a billion of them together (a critical mass) and you have consciousness. Yet consciousness is not a quality possessed by neurons. This phenomenon is known as emergence.
In other words, emergence is the phenomenon in which simple organisms (or atoms/cells/units) self-organize themselves into different and more complex systems with new “emergent” properties that do not naturally occur in the individual organisms (or atoms/cells/units).
Ant colonies are also examples of emergent phenomenon. No single ant has the cognitive ability to envision, design, or build a colony. And yet ant colonies are “designed” with tunnels, chambers, larders, nurseries, dumps for waste, and cemeteries for the dead – all without the aid of committees, architects, or blueprints. And get this: the cemeteries are always the furthest possible distance from the colony, and the dump is always the furthest possible distance from both the colony and the cemetery at the same time.
Contrary to popular belief, the queen does not order other ants around and tell them what to do and where to go. In fact, no one is in charge. And yet ant colonies respond appropriately to changes in their environment and social structure. For example, as the population grows, foraging increases accordingly. Ants will also map the shortest and most efficient route between a food source and the colony. What’s more, successful ant colonies can exist for up to 15 years, yet no single ant lives more than a year, except for the queen. So how do they pull this off?
Well, read the book to find out!
I highly recommend Emergence. Not only is it an interesting subject (though I did skip much of the chapters that talked about software and gaming phenomenon, because I find that less interesting), but it is also a very well-written book, too. Johnson is a very competent writer who exhibits a clean, focused, and accessible style.
I’m uploading a scan of chapter two for you below, and here are some external links (in no particular order):
The Ants, by E. O. Wilson
The Leaf-Cutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct, by E. O. Wilson
Adventures Among Ants, by Mark Moffett
Here's some videos:
This is great, DG. Thank you for sharing it! I wanna check all this out. The topic of consciousness has always interested me, and I don't feel satisfied with some of the answers I'm given about why we have awareness. :)
Yes, it's a very interesting topic. And there are also a good many more links/resources available on the Wikipedia page.