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Humans learn in patterns. If you have four squares in a row, the next shape by assumption, should be a square. Self-organizing systems are created by patterns. Patterns formed by trial and error. Patterns formed by survival instincts. Patterns formed by learning from one another. In the essay “The Myth of the Ant Queen”, the author Steven Johnson, comments on the way self-organizing systems are formed and how patterns help them function in society. Self-organizing systems are made up of entities that are not individually intelligent, but collectively intelligent when coming together to enact behaviors. They are valuable when defining human intelligence because of the way they trigger human instinct to survive efficiently.
Being a member of a collective group or community and being able to learn from those surrounding you is what creates these self-organizing systems. As the saying goes, ‘don’t throw stones at your neighbors if your own windows are glass’. Learn from your neighbors. Learn and grow from the people around you because it could save you from making their mistakes. Even ants follow this code. Johnson states, “…it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on a standardized test, conjuring a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment…” (195). In this segment Johnson is referring to how the ants designated their own area for a dump and cemetery. He talks about how they strategically placed these two places far away from the food source. We can conclude that from this observation that ant behavior is heavily constructed with instinct. For example, quickly finding the closest food source and then deciding how far to place their dead. Building off the idea that ant behavior is instinctual, the ants also delegate a “queen” of their colony, yet all the queen does is lay eggs. She has no real authority, yet the rest of the ants still protect and feed her. Their instinct is to protect the female who is populating their colony. As they learn from each other they become more intelligent and their colony becomes more complex, and with that complexity the intelligence comes. This can be applied to human intelligence because as humans we do things without thinking to create a better quality of life, for example, as humans we also delegate a location to place our dead, not only to keep them respected, but to keep the deceased from just lying at the point of death. If we did not have the instinct or knowledge to do this, then we would be stepping over the dead everywhere we went. As time progressed, we realized that if we buried or cared for our deceased, we could keep our system organized.
The city of Manchester is another example of how self-organizing systems are valuable to human intelligence. In Johnson’s example the city is in a state of anarchy and complete chaos, yet it’s still functioning. It is only able to function because the population hit ‘rock bottom’: meaning the people were struggling and needed to find a solution to make life sustainable again. When struggling, people need to realize that all they need to ask for help. To find that help all they need to do is look to the people surrounding them. They need to realize that they know nothing without the people around them. If one moves into a new neighborhood and need to get to the store, who could you ask? The neighbor. Someone who has been around for a while and knows the area. Learn from each other. That idea cannot be stressed enough. As Johnson says, “…complexity as sensory overload, the city stretching the human nervous system to its very extreme, and in the process teaching it a new series of reflexes…” (198). It’s a systematic complexity, that forces people to rely on their instincts so that society can function. Without that built in function, even with leadership, societies will crumble. Learning from your neighbors is extremely valuable in self-organizing system and is the root of human intelligence.
One could argue that these things happen due to chance, but this is not the case when you consider how these systems function. These self-organizing systems are based on patterns, not something that is successful one time. An entire city with a large population cannot be self-sufficient by chance. It comes down to strategic placement and planning versus something that miraculously succeeds once. It takes trial and error as well as human instinct to determine what really works and what does not. Through these trials and errors, humans learn. We learn that if we do not bury our dead, then they are going to rot, smell, and disturb our way of living, so we in turn, designate an area for them that will keep our system functioning efficiently. Chance can also be argued by patterns. If something happens by chance, how could it be refined and fixed into a long-term solution? By adding new ideas into the pool and seeing what patterns and ideas have worked previously. For example, if by chance the electric goes out in someone’s house and triggering the breaker, fixes the issue, one needs to figure out what they could do to make sure that does not happen again. They could ask around the neighborhood and see if anyone else has had the same issue. Problems are not fixed by chance, they are fixed by change. To determine what changes one needs to make to find a solution to whatever problem the system is facing, the most intelligent pattern to get into a habit of, would be to find someone to help within the said system.
These functioning systems can be compared to complex patterns. Manchester, a self-organizing system, would be nothing without human behavior. “They are patterns of human movement and decision-making that have been etched into the texture of city blocks,” (199). These patterns contribute to what makes self-organizing systems so valuable to human intelligence because, for example, a city or an ant colony cannot function with one human or one ant. One cannot run the water company, the electric company, keep up on mowing all the grass and trimming the trees, or keep their city clean. “A city is a kind of pattern-amplifying machine: its neighborhoods are a way of measuring and expressing the repeated behavior of larger collectivities—capturing information about group behavior, and sharing that information with the group,” (199). Humans have learned that if they work together, they can accomplish more; and this is where patterns fall into the system. Observing others who are following patterns that work and positively contributing to the system, those observing will fall in line. It’s human nature to follow what works. Humans learn that if they follow what works, chance of error is eliminated.
Therefore, we can derive that the way self-organizing systems work, we are improving human intelligence. Trading individualism for collectivism allows us to live more efficient lives, and learning from one another is imperative for that to happen. The system cannot function without patterns or human instinct. As instincts are triggered people become more intelligent and the system becomes more complex. Using Johnson’s ideas, we can further progress and take into consideration his insight into how important this triggered response is when working in a community. After reading this essay, one has learned from the author. They have learned that patterns create self-organizing systems, and they can take this information and share it with others and help them learn that they to can create systems that will positively affect their ways of living.
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