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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Experience of Emergence Lecture - Metamorphic emergence: narrative modelling of species transformations

10th November 2014, 18:00 to 20:00, Room 140, Elvet Riverside, New Elvet, Professor David Herman (Durham University)

This lecture has moved room and will now be held in ER140 not ER201 as listed in the printed programme.


Under its profile as an instrument of mind, narrative helps make the flux of experience intelligible and navigable by generating human-scale models of the world. Whereas sub-personal events such as those bound up with neuronal processes in the brain belong to the domain of microphysics, and whereas supra-personal, aggregate patterns and trends such as those studied by demographers unfold in the domain of macrophysics, the events that feature in narratives are typically part of the mesophysics of everyday life, the ecology of person-level interactions with medium-sized environments. Because narrative has proved to be so serviceable for the world of everyday experience, however, extensions across these boundaries of scale are inevitable, with stories providing a home base for exploratory probes into micro and macro worlds.

In this presentation, I focus on just one subtype of multi-scale storytelling: namely, narratives that seek to come to terms with transformations of animal species. Being fundamentally concerned with change over time, narrative affords resources for modelling biological emergence, or transformations at the supra-individual level of species. For example, stories accommodate shifts backward and forward in phylogenetic history, allow localized shapeshifts to be mapped onto species-level changes, and create space for hybridized characters amalgamating incongruous biological characteristics. Using a range of case studies in multi-scale narration, including fictional treatments of species transformations as well as nonfictional discourse by paleontologists and speculative biologists, I explore how ideas from narrative studies can illuminate important issues raised by such scale-blending accounts. Conversely, analysis of these stories needs to be brought into dialogue with developments in post-Darwinian evolutionary theory--developments suggesting that the experiences of particular individuals may have lasting phylogenetic relevance.


In the sciences the concept of emergence has recently become a central focus of interest. Originally developed by natural philosophers (Lewes, Broad) in the context of evolutionary theory, it connotes paradoxical ‘downward’ causation in an autopoietic system. So-called resultant effects derive traceably – ‘upwardly’ – from the interaction of the parts of the system, generate a quantitative difference, are by definition predictable. Autopoietic systems by contrast generate emergent effects which manifest themselves quasi-irrationally as something more than the sum of the traceable interaction of the system’s constituent parts. They generate a qualitative difference, are by definition unpredictable. As such, ‘downward’ causation is often claimed to ‘explain’ adaptation and evolution in both organic and social systems (Maturana and Luhmann): the reorganisation and restabilisation of a perturbed system under new terms. Examples are the spontaneous behaviour of flocks of birds and shoals of fish under threat; the saltationist evolution of species (Eldredge and Gould); perhaps also the emergence of consciousness from the brain. 

In the last ten years emergence has also, increasingly, been seen as an explicatory factor in the humanities and social sciences. Emergence has variously been suggested to provide a model for the becoming of the soul in post-Darwinian Christian theology; for explaining the unstable behaviour of stock markets; for describing bewildering epochal shifts in aesthetic style. This project offers a programme of interdisciplinary research which will explore the patterns of emergence in humanities and social sciences, and so, in a scholarly environment dominated by scientism and positivism, make a positive contribution to the two cultures debate. The experience of emergence – something to be explored phenomenologically and in communicative media – is argued to be a contact zone of indeterminacy between human and natural science epistemologies. 

This programme offers a series of lectures and workshops by internationally distinguished colleagues from Durham and abroad, addressing the extent to which the experience of emergence contributes to interdisciplinary expansion of cognitive horizons, inter alia 

  • technical evolution and the emergence of social change
  • aesthetic communication and agency in systems theory
  • the relations of cognitive psychology and literature
  • the emergent experience of wonder and wellbeing
  • the ontology of emergence
  • the emergence and after-effects of social crisis
  • the experience of risk and adventure as catalysing the emergence of new cognitive horizons. 

The project team will explore these issues with the support of IAS Fellow Professor Katherine Hayles (Duke University). The IAS is also supporting a programme of fortnightly inter-departmental seminars and a conference, which will culminate in the publication of an edited volume. 

For more information contact Professor Nicholas Saul ( 

Contact for more information about this event.