You Are an Emergent Constraint

The work you present is a product of the work you prevent.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

The alarm goes off and you wake out of a dreamy anything-goes fog. Within seconds you’ve honed in from anything-goes to what you’re going to do today.

A cook starts with a larder full of ingredients that could be combined in thousands of ways. Of all the possible combinations, the cook hones in on a tasty combination. 

By temperament, the toddler was rambunctious, unable to focus, dithering and flitting from one thing to the next. His parents knew their job. Little by little, as he grew, they discouraged dithering until he was able to discipline himself, getting to his to-do list by staying away from distractions.  

The machine was failing. The repairperson figured out why. There was a short in the wiring, charge leaking off where it didn’t belong. Charge is like that. It’ll go anywhere, taking the path of least resistance. Electrical engineering and repair is charge wrangling, corralling and cornering the charge so that the path of least resistance doesn’t just go anywhere but where we want it to go.

So is management. Left to their own devices, employees end up doing whatever. Management is wrangling so that employee expectations keep each other in line—not a single-file line, but operation within constrained tolerances. Of all the things people could do, managers wrangle them into doing what’s productive.

You practice your craft. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does make effort-wasting activities increasingly unlikely. What remains after your process of inefficiency-elimination is more efficient activity. A pro makes their craft look easy because they’ve made inefficient activities unlikely. 

Willpower, self-discipline, self-control – what is it? You know what it yields—you get things done, but how? By preventing yourself from doing other things. Succeeding with your to-do list is a product of you preventing yourself from doing things on your to-don’t list. Instead of dithering, you focus, channeling your energy and attention into your priorities. Your self-discipline is a result of the wasteful work you prevent yourself from doing. 

You’ve got your bad habits, things you’re likely to do that you shouldn’t. To break these bad habits you impose constraints that make your bad habits less likely. You stop bringing Oreos, scotch, or cigarettes into the home. As a result of making your bad habits less likely, better habits become more likely. 

Darwin explained adaptive fitness, the successful traits that enable organisms to succeed in their struggle for existence given their circumstances. Darwin realized that to explain the traits we see, we must pay attention to unsuccessful traits we don’t see, the errors eliminated in evolution’s trial-and-error process. 

He called this trial-and-error process “natural selection,” drawing a parallel to artificial selection, farmers not breeding inefficient traits so that the traits that remained were more efficient. The traits presented are a product of the traits prevented. 

Darwin, however, did not explain the struggle for existence. He assumed the struggle. He even admits it, describing it as “breathed into a few forms or into one.” By now, many people assume that natural selection or DNA caused the struggle for existence. Many other people assume that God causes it. None of these solutions meet scientific standards. The struggle for existence is something different from nothing but chemistry. What is it? 

We humans are at a huge advantage in figuring out what the heck we living beings are. With language, we’re much more likely to explain the struggle for existence than say, a horse, duck, tomato plant, or potato bug. 

But language also tends to distort, giving us a false sense of precision. Declaring that this causes that comes all too easy to us. We oversimplify through language. You hear it throughout the social sciences: This chemical causes that response; this motivation causes that behavior; this behavior causes that result. 

Having language also makes our world overwhelmingly complicated, which makes us anxiously insistent about our oversimplifications: “No, I’m absolutely sure that this caused that!”

Notice what all of those examples above from everyday life have in common with Darwin's insight.  In each case, focus grew by a honing process. Instead of anything-goes, possibilities are eliminated. When some possibilities are eliminated other possibilities become more likely. The technical term for it is constraint.

Some constraints are imposed, for example, an engine cylinder that prevents gas from pushing out in all directions or a canal that prevents water from spilling every which way. But some constraints are emergent.

Here’s an example of emergent constraint: You’re threading your way through a crowded plaza, everyone trying to thread around everyone. People sidestep the congestion. Eventually, paths of least resistance emerge by a process of path-elimination around congestion. 

There were no imposed constraints, no guide rails or traffic cops to impose the simplification of traffic flows. Rather, congestion prevents passage down some paths, thereby leaving other paths more likely. This kind of emergent constraint is called self-organization. It explains non-living and living phenomena, from whirlpools, crystal formation, and chemical chain reactions, to population explosions and social fads and movements. 

Self-organization doesn’t explain the struggle for existence but it illustrates how you can get something different from nothing but interaction. Self-organization is an example of emergent constraint, some work becoming less probable making other work more probable.

What’s most likely throughout our universe is degeneration, work petering out, stuff falling apart. Life’s struggle for existence defies this tendency. Life on earth hasn’t petered out or fallen apart in over 3.8 billion years. 

We’re not durable. Rather, we persist by honing in on work to regenerate ourselves. Organisms prevent their own degeneration, thereby making self-regeneration more likely. We’re self-wrangling, constraining everything that could happen with our chemistry down to what keeps us from degenerating. We’re just chemistry, but not just any chemistry, we’re chemistry that prevents its own degeneration.

One last example, and then, if you’re interested in how that might have started at the origins of life, check out the video below. 

The alarm goes off and you hone in on what you’re going to do today. You dither a little maybe at first, and then you get to work on your priorities. What’s your biggest priority? Preventing your own degeneration.  You channel breakfast into work that enables you to continue to channel energy. Food could fuel any work but you’re picky. You’ll use breakfast to prevent degeneration, regenerating cells, healing what degenerates, keeping a roof over your head, clothes on your body, earning the money to buy breakfast for tomorrow. And maybe raising kids so the self-regeneration continues.  

Your struggle for existence is your struggle against non-existence. You make degeneration less likely thereby making continued self-regeneration more likely.

Most fundamentally, living is death prevention. You’re an emergent constraint that hones energy into work that prevents that emergent constraint from degenerating. You are what you prevent yourself from doing. Day after day, you make self-degeneration unlikely thereby making self-regeneration more likely. It’s your struggle against non-existence. 

It’s not a material thing. You’re not some Y caused by an X. You’re an emergent constraint.


Sherman, Jeremy (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves. NYC: Columbia University Press.