There is an entire genealogy to be written from the point of view of the challenge posed by insect coordination, by “swarm intelligence.” Again and again, poetic, philosophical, and biological studies ask the same question: how does this “intelligent,” global organization emerge from a myriad of local, “dumb” interactions?” — Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit.

[…] The interest in swarms was intimately connected to the research on emergence and “superorganisms” that arose during the early years of the twentieth century, especially in the 1920s. Even though the author of the notion of superorganisms was the now somewhat discredited writer Herbert Spencer,63 who introduced it in 1898, the idea was fed into contemporary discourse surrounding swarms and emergence through myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler. In 1911 Wheeler had published his classic article “The Ant Colony as an Organism” (in Journal of Morphology), and similar interests continued to be expressed in his subsequent writings. His ideas became well known in the 1990s in discussions concerning artificial life and holistic swarm-like organization. For writers such as Kevin Kelly, mentioned earlier in this chapter, Wheeler’s ideas regarding superorganisms stood as the inspiration for the hype surrounding emergent behavior.64 Yet the actual context of his paper was a lecture given at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in 1910.65 As Charlotte Sleigh points out, Wheeler saw himself as continuing the work of holistic philosophers, and later, in the 1910s and 1920s, found affinities with Bergson’s philosophy of temporality as well.66 In 1926, when emergence had already been discussed in terms of, for example, emergent evolution, evolutionary naturalism, creative synthesis, organicism, and emergent vitalism, Wheeler noted that this phenomenon seemed to challenge the basic dualisms of determinism versus freedom, mechanism versus vitalism, and the many versus the one.67 An animal phenomenon thus presented a crisis for the fundamental philosophical concepts that did not seem to apply to such a transversal mode of organization, or agencement to use the term that Wheeler coined. It was a challenge to philosophy and simultaneously to the physical, chemical, psychological, and social sciences, a phenomenon that seemed to cut through these seemingly disconnected spheres of reality.

In addition to Wheeler, one of the key writers on emergence – again also for Kelly in his Out of Control 68 – was C. Lloyd Morgan, whose Emergent Evolution (1927) proposed to see evolution in terms of emergent “relatedness”. Drawing on Bergson and Whitehead, Morgan rejected a mechanistic dissecting view that the interactions of entities “whether physical or mental” always resulted only in “mixings” that could be seen beforehand. Instead he proposed that the continuity of the mechanistic relations were supplemented with sudden changes at times. At times reminiscent of Lucretius’s view that there is a basic force, clinamen, that is the active differentiating principle of the world, Morgan focused on how qualitative changes in direction could affect the compositions and aggregates. He was interested in the question of the new and how novelty is possible. In his curious modernization of Spinoza, Morgan argued for the primacy of relations – or “relatedness,” to be accurate.69 Instead of speaking of agencies or activities, which implied a self-enclosed view of interactions, in Emergent Evolution Morgan propagated in a way an ethological view of the world. Entities and organisms are characterized by relatedness, the tendency to relate to their environment and, for example, other organisms. So actually, what emerge are relations:

If it be asked: What is it that you claim to be emergent? the brief reply is: Some new kind of relation. Revert to the atom, the molecule, the thing (e.g. a crystal), the organism, the person. At each ascending step there is a new entity in virtue of some new kind of relation, or set of relations, within it, or, as I phrase it, intrinsic to it. Each exhibits also new ways of acting on, and reacting to, other entities. There are new kinds of extrinsic relatedness“.70

The evolutionary levels of mind, life, and matter are in this scheme intimately related, with the lower levels continuously affording the emergence of so-called higher functions, like those of humans. Different levels of relatedness might not have any understanding of the relations that define other levels of existence, but still these other levels with their relations affect the other levels. Morgan tried, nonetheless, to steer clear of the idealistic notions of humanism that promoted the human mind as representing a superior stage in emergence. His stance was much closer to a certain monism in which mind and matter are continuously in some kind of intimate correspondence whereby even the simplest expressions of life participate in a wider field of relatedness. In Emergent Evolution Morgan described relations as completely concrete. He emphasized that the issue is not only about relations in terms but as much about terms in relation, with concrete situations, or events, stemming from their relations.71 In a way, other views on emergence put similar emphasis on the priority of relations, expressing a kind of radical empiricism in the vein of William James. Drawing on E. G. Spaulding’s 1918 study The New Rationalism, Wheeler noted the unpredictable potentials in connectionism: a connected whole is more than (or at least nor reducible to) its constituent parts, implying the impossibility to find causal determination of aggregates. Whereas existing sciences might be able to recognize and track down certain relationships that they have normalized or standardized, the relations might still produce properties that are beyond those of the initial conditions – and thus also demand a vector of analysis that parts from existing theories – dealing with properties that open up only in relation to themselves (as a “law unto themselves”). 72 Instead, a more complicated mode of development was at hand, in which aggregates, or agencements, simultaneously involved various levels of reality. This also implied that aggregates, emergent orders, have no one direction but are constituted of relations that extend in various directions:

We must also remember that most authors artificially isolate the emergent whole and fail to emphasize the fact that its parts have important relations not only with one another but also with the environment and that these external relations may contribute effectively towards producing both the whole and its novelty“.73 […]

in (passage from), Jussi Parikka, “Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology“, Chapter II – Genesis of Form: Insect Architecture and Swarms, (section) Emergence and Relatedness: A Radical Empiricism – take one, pp. 51-53, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2011.