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Emergence in Complex, Cognitive, Social and Biological Systems.

Edited by Gianfranco Minati and Eliano Pessa. Published by Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002, 410 pp., ISBN 0 306 47358 5, 144.00 [euro], US $125.00, 87.50 [pounds sterling].

The word `emergence' is nowadays meant as the central topic of a wide and fecund trans-disciplinary crossing which aims to a global vision of knowledge production and recognizes the observer's theoretic centrality and man's epistemological freedom in `creating many games'.

The study of complex systems and emergent phenomena not only provides an indispensable conceptual framework for understanding a large number of processes, but totally gets rid of the idea of scientific activity as homogeneous and closed inside strict disciplinary separations. Research development needs a new attention for the theoretic meta-level inside which the models are formulated, selected, compared and applied.

The systemic-cybernetic approach has shown to be a very `natural' context for studying the emergent phenomena, because the idea itself of `system as a set of interrelated elements' hints at the existence of multi-level global properties and collective behaviours which cannot thus be explained in terms of the constituent properties. So we have to take expressly into consideration that there exist many description levels of the same system closely linked to the choices of the experimental-observational frame, which, after all, is always the expression of the observer's one specific objective. Such an aspect is particularly important; one of reductionism's implicit messages lies in maintaining that there is a system description at a fundamental level and therefore a true and in some way definitive model which has been considered that of elementary constituents. Really, it is more useful to adopt a `constructivist' view according to which a formal model is a system description worked out to study one level of behaviour rather than others.

The peculiar distinction between linear, closed and `simple' systems approachable by reductionist analysis and the open, non-linear, complex systems class can be studied from a thermodynamic viewpoint, i.e. considering the energetic balance between a system and its environment: complex systems use the energy at their disposal in a non-trivial way. Non-linearity lets these systems use creatively the energetic baggage management and dissipation processes, thus giving rise to the emergence phenomena and the production of new spatiotemporal patterns associated with entropy-information dynamics.

Such a framework can be suitably broadened to systems more generally by introducing `logical openness' (Minati et al., 1998); it is possible to classify open systems by their capacity to produce new unpredictable information in their interaction between different cognitive agents and a finite quantity of syntactic information (meaning generating).

If, on one hand, it seems clear by now that nontrivial emergent processes are linked to the system's peculiar non-linearity, then we ask if is possible to build a general complex system theory which can state the necessary and sufficient conditions for the manifestations of emergent processes. Other problems are related to the descriptive level: is it possible to build a multi-level model which can describe the striking characteristics of many space-time patterns in a complex system, or is it necessary to introduce a sort of `indetermination principle' which establishes the systemic observer's limits?

Answering the above questions is partly related to the application of the complexity and emergence of formal tools to different areas from the traditionally physical-mathematical ones, such as the studying of cognitive, social and economic processes. In these cases adopting a mathematical model appears to be much less `natural' than when we deal with particles or neurons, and the model-maker's intention has to be clearly specified in relation to the prefixed goal. In particular, one of the fundamental problems in this kind of modelling is the choice of the `right' collective variables, or a natural migration of variables which come from other spheres and had been defined in a different context, by means of rigorous operative procedures. A typical example is the generalization of the energy concept, which implies a big conceptual apparatus related to system symmetries and conservation laws.

In general, it has to be said that there is a whole set of cognitive, social and economic `classical' systems theories, but all these are shown to be lacking in utility in case of sudden shifts or unpredictable choice mechanism, that is, choices which cannot be included in a hierarchy of predefined solutions on the basis of a `rational' criterion of `desirability', for instance in finding satisfactory explanations for the fast dissolving of companies and political systems and for morphogenesis and learning processes or the electoral choice mechanism under highly unstable conditions. Thus we need new dynamic models in the social and cognitive sciences in order to take into account the intrinsic complexity of the shifting relations among the single cognitive system, environment and social groups.

The anthology edited by Gianfranco Minati and Eliano Pessa--the Italian Association for Research on Systems (AIRS) Proceedings of the 2nd Italian Conference, held in Castel Ivano (Trento) on 9-10 November 2001--is the most complete survey available on the `state of the art' in complexity sciences. It includes 32 papers divided into thematic sections which deal with emergence from an `open' and `wide' ranging viewpoint. In fact, the two editors clearly express in the preface that systemics cannot be viewed as a specific discipline but rather as a set of approaches and methodologies aimed at promoting the interdisciplinary interaction among researchers in different fields. Thus, the perspective openness chosen here places this volume in a conceptual land--not sufficiently colonialized yet--between the epistemological frames of E. Morin, G. Bateson, H. Maturana and F. Varela and the more formal ones of Haken Synergetics, a dynamic theory of classical and quantum systems, and soft computing, so renewing inheritance of N. Wiener and L. von Bertalanffy's basic ideas.

The Opening Lecture was given by the father of Synergetics, H. Haken, who underlines the necessity of broadening the theory's key concepts (stable states, micro- and macroscopic variables, correlation, critical fluctuations, order parameters emergence), so as to make it fit for the new challenges aroused not only by brain dynamics--a topic on which the great scholar has centred all his last papers--but also by the multifarious high complexity of social change, the Web as global brain, decision making, urbanism and the ethics of development.

The first section, Modelling, is mostly concerned to point out the advantage of cellular automata (CA) for studying some complex macroscopic phenomena. In both papers on this topic we find S. Di Gregorio, one of the greatest authorities on CA. G. Minati and S. Brahms formalize the Dynamic Usage of Models (DYSAM) as a tool for the integrated analysis of different models. Such an idea seems to us capable of very fecund developments not only in finding out an `optimal' model able to catch on the peculiar aspects of an intrinsic complex emergence phenomenon, but chiefly as a tool for developing a constructivist formal epistemology.

The second section focuses on Cognitive Science. M. P. Penna outlines a panorama concerning the emergence of learning strategies based on both a set of experiments regarding children's arithmetic skills and a classical paper on learning as a phase transition in neural nets (Penna and Pessa, 1995). G. Terenzi deals with the collective behaviours of neural nets as the key to explain language and the symbolic function as emerging processes in cognitive systems dynamically interacting with each other and environment (so-called symbol grounding). Nowadays one of the open problems in neural nets is to make them less and less `artificial' and more `biomorph'. P. Camiz outlines an elegant synaptic development model based on a variational principle able to `darwinize' (in G. Edelmann's sense) the neural nets.

The third section, Theoretical Issues in Systemics, points out some foundational problems which must be taken account of in the new systemic-cybernetic framework to efficaciously make clear the relationships among non-linearity, information and emergence. G. Minati underlines the importance of the `ergodicity' concept--i.e, the particular characteristics of the temporal energy behaviours in a system--as the emergence phenomena `indicator': evolution and the social processes which imply structural change are typically non-ergodic. M. Abram uses a method based on topological matrices to point out the striking features of a system, particularly in reference to its possible decomposition into subsystems. R. Serra analyses the general properties of nets (neural, genetic and artificial) in relation to their structure and shows the close connection between topological and dynamic properties, such as resistance, flexibility and sensibility to noise. U. Di Caprio makes a critical survey of fundamental concepts in order to build up a general system theory--stability, energy, irreversibility and non-linearity--focused on Lyapunov's qualitative differential equations theory and Kalman's legacy. E. Pessa and G. Resconi investigate what part the relations between dynamics and symmetries plays, by generalizing the `gauging' mechanism, well known in field theory. Fundamentally, it is a `compensatory' method which allows the use of conservation laws and invariance principles when, at a different descriptive level, they seem to be failing.

The fourth section, Education, opens with a paper by M. P. Penna, V. Stara and N. S. Bonfiglio on the possibilities of using the personal computer in the frame of a systemic approach to the dynamic teacher-pupil process, in a triadic education feedback. The two contributions by R. Cambini and A. Codetta, by developing the ideas of the Piaget school, the intuitions of Maturana and the suggestions of Damasio, define an ecological and constructivist view centred on the problems of educative research and skills evaluation, with a particular concern for mathematics teaching.

The fifth section, Systemic Approach and Information Technology, deals with robotics, hypermedia and bio-computing. These are rapidly expanding areas sharing, from a systemic point of view, the emergent phenomena (robotics `without representations' in the paper by G. Tascini, A. Montesanto, P. Puliti and N. Rabascini), multilevel description (M. C. Tofoni and A. Montesanto on web usability), and computational complexity (G. M. Mauri and M. Zandron's remarkable paper on `P-Systems' or `Membrane Systems', a new class of distributed and parallel computing devices of biochemical inspiration).

In the next section, General Systems, the possibility of describing different systems as a `gymnasium' for systemic thinking is considered, where the chosen descriptive level, semantic-interpretative dimension and critical evaluation of the model play a critical role: `sustainable development' (L. A. Magliocca, G. Minati), analysis data extracted from video registration of human movements (M. P. Penna, D. Zandona, A. Montesanto and N. S. Bonfiglio), textual analysis (M. Nardon, E. Not, F. Pianesi and M. Zancanaro), interactions between social, cultural and political aspects in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (S. Brahms), and different disciplinary frames--mono, inter, multi, trans--in knowledge production (A. Collen).

In the seventh section, Management, it is pointed out that in an age dominated by highly virtual context it is necessary to develop new models of knowledge distribution, a new concept of leadership and management for institutions and companies in co-evolution with the fast-changing environment (M. Bonifacio and P. Bouquet on Distributed Knowledge Management; M. P. Penna, E. Celani and N. S. Bonfiglio on the dynamical role of knowledge and communication as a factor in structure survival). The central idea is that the roles inside institutions or companies cannot be hierarchically fixed once and for all, in a strict way, but they have to be conceived as `flexible answers'.

The eighth section, Systemic Approaches to Human Care, in dealing with the problem of health and health agencies, stresses the necessity to start from a holistic approach to the human being and the concept of illness itself. They have to go together in an `ecological' analysis of the dynamic history of the organism--environment. Reductionism has been for medicine a sort of `medical Taylorism', centred on symptoms and pharmacons without history, useless both in health dynamic equilibrium and, consequently, in discovering prevention strategies. In this context, G. Minati and A. Ricciuti's contribution is particularly remarkable, on the importance of `balancing' and `compensating' motor deficit states by rethinking one's own cognitive attitude, so as to make, paradoxical though may appear, an ill organism more `active' and `creative' in resources management than a healthy one. So the traditional dichotomic concept `healthy/ill' shows all its theoretical limits. M. Trionfi's paper is centred on the epistemological and methodological assumptions of homeopathy, which has been considered for a long time non-scientific in the different vision of medicine it proposes. Such vision has recently been supported by the `water-memory' model based on non-linear quantum electrodynamics. A. Ricciuti's paper, focusing on cancer, proposes to consider the `history' of degenerative diseases so as not to reduce the patient-doctor interaction to a merely surgical or chemotherapeutic matter. P. L.Bandinelli, C. Palma, M. P. Penna, E. Pessa and R. Petroni outline a model of epileptic phenomena grounded on the correlation processes in cellular neural nets, providing a further connection between neural nets theory and the actual possibility of applying it in diagnostics.

The last section, Synergetics and Systemics, again deals with the fundamental questions. L. Galgani, with his usual elegance, delineates some subtle theoretical peculiarities of classical determinism. E. Pessa and G. Vitiello in their contributions insist on the necessity to find a deep connection between a general system theory and quantum field theory.

Before making trans-disciplinarity a concrete practice a long way as to be walked, and this anthology of heterogeneous papers mirrors this state of things. On the other hand, working in this direction is necessary if science, giving up `Faustian' and `totalitarian' tendencies, wants to rethink itself radically and so find again its natural position as man's creative and critical activity.


Minati G, Penna MP, Pessa E. 1998. Thermodynamical and logical openness in general systems. System Research and Behavioural Science 15: 131-145.

Penna MP, Pessa E. 1995. Can learning process in neural networks be considered as a phase transition? In M. Marinaro and R. Tagliaferri (eds), Proceedings of the 7th Italian Workshop on Neural Nets (WIRN VIETRI), Marinaro M, Tagliaferri (eds), Italy. World Scientific, Singapore; 123-129.
Ignazio Licata
Istituto di Cibernetica Non-Lineare per lo Studio
dei Sistemi Complessi
Marsala (TP), Italy
DOI: 10.1002/sres.541
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Author:Licata, Ignazio
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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