I wrote about the weakness of reductionism about 18 months ago [see ‘Reduction in usefulness of reductionism‘ on February 17th, 2021]. Reductionism is the concept that everything about a complex system can be understood by reducing it to the smallest constituent part. The concept is flawed because complex systems exhibit emergent properties [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015] that appear at a certain level of complexity but do not exist at lower levels. Life is an emergent property so when you reduce an organism to its constituent parts, for instance by dissection, you kill it and are unable to observe its normal behaviour. Reductionism is widespread in Western science and has been blinding us to what is often well-known to aboriginal people, i.e., the interconnectedness of nature. One example is forest ecosystems that Suzanne Simard, amongst others, has shown are complex synergistic, multi-scale organisations of species. Complexity is only hard for those who have not thought about it – it is obvious to many peoples whose lives are integrated in nature’s ecosystem but it is really difficult for those of us educated in the reductionist tradition.
I am worried that engineering has become a mechanism for financial returns in an economic system that values profit above everything with the result that many engineers are unwittingly, or perhaps in a few cases wittingly, supporting the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few capitalists. At the start of the industrial revolution, when engineering innovation started to make a difference to the way we live and work, very few engineers foresaw the impact on the planet of the large scale provision to society of products and services. Nowadays most engineers understand the consequences for the environment of their work; however, many feel powerless to make substantial changes often because they are constrained by the profit-orientated goals of their employer or feel that they play a tiny role in a complex system. Complex systems are often characterised by self-organisation in which order appears without any centralised control or planning and by adaptation to change and experience. Such systems are familiar to many engineers and perhaps they do not, but should, think of the engineering profession as complex system capable of adaptation and self-organisation in which the actions and decisions of individual engineers will cause the emergence of a new order. Our individual impact might be tiny but by acting we influence others to act and the cumulative effect will emerge in ways that no one can predict – that’s emergence for you.