The difficulty of understanding emergent behavior is usually attributed to our need to see in it the operation of some kind of centralized control where there is in fact none (Keller 1985, Resnick 1994). Yet as a species, we seem to have little difficulty with complex narratives in which there is no centralized control and in which chance often plays a major role (tragedies, comedies, most novels and films). I argue that the principal reason for the incompatibility of emergent behavior with narrative understanding is its massive distribution of causal agents—a complexity of causation so acute that it disallows any perceptible chain of causation that could serve as a narrative thread. Narrative can and does play a limited role in our understanding of emergent behavior but does so only at the micro level of individual agents (the horse ancestor) and the macro level of the whole (the evolution of the horse). The perils of our weakness for narrative templates in trying to understand emergent behavior arise when understanding the internal nature of the process of emergence is critical to our choice-making behavior. This is especially the case when our health and well-being depend on emergent behaviors to which we contribute. Notable examples are the common efforts to narrativize the behaviors of the stock market and human evolution.
Skip Nav Destination
H. Porter Abbott; Narrative and Emergent Behavior. Poetics Today 1 June 2008; 29 (2): 227–244. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2007-024
Download citation file: