In the theory of evolution, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. The British philosopher of science G.H. Lewes (1817–78) distinguished between resultants and emergents—phenomena that are predictable from their constituent parts (e.g., a physical mixture of sand and talcum powder) and those that are not (e.g., a chemical compound such as salt, which looks nothing like sodium or chlorine). The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared. Each new mode of life, though grounded in the conditions of the previous stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle. These are thus cases of emergence. In the philosophy of mind, the primary candidates for the status of emergent properties are mental states and events.

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Emergent evolution is the hypothesis that, in the course of evolution, some entirely new properties, such as life and consciousness, appear at certain critical points, usually because of an unpredictable rearrangement of the already existing entities. The concept has influenced the development of systems theory and complexity theory.

Historical context

The word emergent was first used to describe the concept by George Lewes in volume two of his 1875 book Problems of Life and Mind (p. 412). Henri Bergson covered similar themes in the popular book Creative Evolution in 1907. It was further developed by Samuel Alexander in his Gifford Lectures at Glasgow during 1916–18 and published as Space, Time, and Deity (1920). The term emergent evolution was coined by C. Lloyd Morgan in his own Gifford lectures of 1921–22 at St. Andrews and published as Emergent Evolution (1923). In an appendix to one lecture in his book, Morgan acknowledged the contributions of Roy Wood Sellars' Evolutionary Naturalism (1922).


  • George H. Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind, First Series: The Foundations of a Creed, vol. II (1875). University of Michigan Library: ISBN 1425555780
  • Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (1911, English translation of L'Evolution créatrice), Dover Publications 1998: ISBN 0-486-40036-0
  • Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity (1920). Kessinger Publishing reprint: ISBN 0766187020 vol 1 online version
  • C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (1923). Henry Holt and Co., ISBN 0-40460468-4, online version

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