Science Corner: Watching the Special Features

Photo of runners in a marathon

Everyone’s just trying to run their race, and yet they exhibit behaviors as if they are working together. (Photo by

I came across a couple of neat videos of emergent behavior that I thought might be interesting to discuss together. The first comes from a study of marathons and the dynamics of how the race starts. Typically marathons have large fields such that everyone cannot start running at once; the runners at the front begin, and the “start” moves backwards through the field in a sort of wave. If you’ve never run a marathon, you might be familiar with similar phenomena from other contexts, such as traffic on a freeway. I’ve encountered traffic situations where all the cars are basically stopped, then it seems like things open up and you can move forward for a bit, then everyone comes to a stop again, and so on for a few iterations without any discernible cause for the starting and stopping. If you had a bird’s-eye view, you might be able to understand this traffic pattern as waves of movement traveling backwards from the accident or roadwork creating the congestion. You can see that wave in the marathon videos below (and notice the bridges of the Pittsburgh marathon at the beginning).

The second is not quite as relatable, but I think still worth giving a watch. It shows the collective behavior of the worm Lumbriculus variegatus and how they glom together to maintain temperature and keep from drying out. And they don’t just huddle together; they can move together and their blob can exhibit a range of behaviors and properties depending on the circumstances.

In case you’re not familiar, “emergent behavior” is the name given to phenomena that are the product of many individuals interacting without group-level coordination. In other words, the wave in the runner crowd and the blob of worms are features of the group, but nobody is in charge of the group. Instead, the actions of the individuals without awareness of the group are sufficient to produce the overall behavior. That’s not to say what’s happening at the group level isn’t real. There is clearly a wave and there is clearly a blob, and it is meaningful to talk about them. Just because we can see how the runners or the worms interact to create the wave or the blob, doesn’t mean we have to conclude there is nothing but runners or worms.

I was thinking about these emergent behaviors when I read the following quote from Timothy Keller on Twitter.

If you are being swept up in joy and wonder by a work of art, it will impoverish you to remind yourself that this feeling is simply a chemical reaction that helped your ancestors find food and escape predators, and nothing more.

It’s a quote from his book Making Sense of God that another user shared and Keller retweeted. The context is a passage about how we can have powerful emotional reactions to music, and that a purely materialist understanding of that experience is lacking; our joy and wonder are best understood if there is a God, or perhaps at least a spiritual realm to which music and other art points us. Now, I definitely share Keller’s belief in God. And I agree that talking about emotions as nothing more than chemical reactions is missing something. At the same time, I think understanding the chemical and physiological reactions that generate emotions can enrich rather than impoverish my relationship to music and art. And that’s a sense I don’t get, at least from this passage of Keller’s book. Instead, it seems like one must choose between the emotional/spiritual/transcendent description and the chemical/physiological/evolutionary one.

Sure, I get why some people prefer to focus on the emotional/spiritual/transcendent level; that’s the one that comes most naturally to us. I think it’s a similar reason why some people don’t want to watch the special features and find out how the movie is made. They don’t want to know about the math involved in rendering spectacular vistas, or the sweat behind the stunts of a stunning action sequence, or the way that editing can shape a narrative from pieces that don’t tell any story on their own. That’s fair; I don’t want to hinder anyone’s experience of art. But I love to know how all of those moviemaking elements work and how they come together. And I love knowing more about how my body generates its responses to those movies, or how people come together to create waves of activity, or even how worms come together to make sophisticated blobs. And for other folks like me, I’d hate for them to miss out on the possibility of believing in God because they are also interested in those things as well. I imagine Keller feels the same way, based on the overall tenor of his writing and teaching. But in case it wasn’t clear from that particular quote, I thought it was worth elaborating on.

How do you approach art & science? Do you prefer to maintain some distance and appreciate the big picture, dig into the details of how it works and how it came to be, or some of both?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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