Sacred Dance #11: Ants and Jelly Bean Jars

As individuals, ants are neither particularly smart nor particularly complex. A single ant may spend hours wandering about randomly looking for food to no avail, and with little discernable pattern in its search. Its actions, I’m told, are random – virtually void of intellect.

Yet, as colonies, ants are remarkably sophisticated. They can build (and rebuild) homes, defend them, and assimilate all of the nutrition that the colony needs.

What enables ants to accomplish so much? The question has puzzled biologists for years. Somehow, a collection of seemingly chaotic, randomly behaving organisms manage to collectively accomplish something that any one of them cannot. There is nothing directing them, per se. They simply seem to have collective capabilities that transcend what any of them can accomplish individually.

Steven Johnson, an American science author, has recently written a book on this subject called Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Unfortunately, I have not read the book, but there a really good summary of it in this episode of the Radiolab podcast.

Emergence is a concept that transcends multiple scientific disciplines, from biology to neurology to sociology. Johnson defines it as follows:

Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior.  It’s a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level.  Systems that at first glance seem vastly different–ant colonies, human brains, cities, immune systems–all turn out to follow the rules of emergence.  In each of these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies a scale above them: ants create colonies, urbanites create neighborhoods.

One curious phenomenon involves the way ant trails develop. Apparently, if an ant stumbles across something that appears to be nutritionally useful, it begins to leave a chemical trail behind which other ants may (or may not – at the start) pick up. However, if another ant picks up the scent, and also finds something useful, it will also add to the scent. Eventually, it becomes so strong that a huge number of ants will “stumble” into it and – thus forms the trail.

A similar phenomenon can be found on the sociological level. Ask a large enough group of people to guess something – the weight of an animal, the number of jelly beans in a jar, whatever – and the average of all the guesses will almost always be dead-on. One person’s guess is virtually useless, but – if you get enough people involved – the collective guess is almost always right.

You are probably already familiar with the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, different people touch the elephant in different places and perceive different things, though there is – in the end – only one elephant. Extending that fable a bit – consider what happens when the blind men begin to speak to one another. As they compare experiences, they can begin to get a “picture” of what the elephant might look like, even though any one of them could never have imagined what the elephant looked like based on his individual experience.

Some of the most incredible scientific discoveries of the last two centuries have been a result of this process. Scientists can take the work of their colleagues, refine it, create more sophisticated hypothesis, and arrive at conclusions that no one person would ever discover. The quest for the grand unification theory is, in a sense, a highly complex conversation between thousands of scientists out of which may eventually emerge a deeper understanding of the universe.

Which brings me back to the window blind. If God is, in fact, only partially revealed to any one person, then it makes sense that the best way to learn more is to enter into conversations with other people who have (or haven’t) had experiences of God. We can sometimes add to the conversations, but we are mostly there to listen.

These conversations, however, are not momentary phenomenon among 2-3 people. They are deep, ancient dialogs – involving the dead as much or more than the living – and they involve tens of thousands of people.

At the heart of those conversations are those who found themselves in the aftermath of what they claimed was the most remarkable event in human history – the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. They are the communities of the First Century church. It was out of those communities that our New Testament was formed. And, among other things, they point us to the text of the Old Testament to interpret what they had experienced. Since their time, there has been a virtual explosion of thought about what had happened, what they had experienced. Thousands upon thousands of voices have joined with them.

It is into that conversation that we must enter.

And in the next post, I’ll try to put this idea in a slightly more concrete form.

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