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Emergence and evil


The production of biological weapons occurred in the Soviet Union on a vast scale of deadly effectiveness that is chilling and horrific. How could they do this? We are forced to take seriously the notion of evil. But, if we fail to address a central claim of emergence—that the character of a whole cannot be reduced to its parts—we will seriously misperceive evil with grave consequences. Drawing upon an account of this program by its chief research scientist, this paper exposes the character of emergent patterns within which people, much like ourselves, devoted their time and effort to preparations for mass murder. The patterns are disturbingly familiar. This paper demonstrates that emergence, as a disciplined way of thinking, can expand our understanding of evil and responsibility in ways that are relevant and critically important.


“Understanding the factors that can and do lead people of faith and goodwill—wittingly or unwittingly—into destructive and evil patterns of behavior must be a high priority on the world’s agenda” (Kimball, 2002: 7)

The word ‘evil’ means portending great harm, threat, or danger. It implies something sinister, seductive, or hidden and yet potentially powerful. Essayist Lance Morrow (2003: 7) tells us, “evil is the most powerful word in the language, and the most elusive.” The purpose of this paper is to apply a central concept from complexity theory, emergence, to the study of evil[1]. But, first, I will explain why an ‘alternative perspective’ (Hiett, 2001) is taken.

Emergence in human affairs: An alternative perspective

“An important property of emergent wholes is that they cannot be reduced to their parts ... wholes are qualitatively different from their parts ... they require a different language to discuss them” (Richardson, 2004: 76-77).

Such notions of emergence are central to the exciting and expanding field of complexity science (Goldstein, 2000; Waldrop, 1992). The concept of emergence challenges traditional management theory and common understandings of organizations in human affairs (Lissack, 1999). However, my own experience as a practitioner—assessing the consequences of technological actions—leads me to agree with Hiett (2001) that “complexity theory has the air of something not quite right” and an “alternative perspective” is called for.

On the one hand, experience leads me to conclude that emergence is indeed a concept of fundamental importance. Failure to address emergent phenomena in human affairs portends dangers so grave that the word ‘evil’ is justified! On the other hand, the study of emergence has not sufficiently drawn upon the experiences of practitioners—engineers, applied scientists, managers, etc.—and the radical implications of emergence have not been incorporated into their education, thinking, and notions of responsibility. Instead, ‘emergence’ seems to be appropriated by academic fields with their own internal jargon and citations that serve to mark off territories convincing practitioners to “leave such esoteric concerns to other experts.” As the danger of catastrophic emergent outcomes grows, the study of emergence itself may become an intellectual black hole, shedding little light on the world that is being radically transformed through the organized applications of science and technology. To counter such a troubling condition, the study of emergence must draw upon the experiences of practitioners and provide explanations (models, sketches, etc.) that practitioners can readily grasp and critically review from the basis of their own experience. This paper constitutes this kind of study.

Practitioners are problem solvers. For emergence, Goldstein (2000: 5) describes the problem well.

“Although emergence may be an intriguing, even revolutionary, notion, the more one tries to get a clear grasp on the concept, the more it can prove to be elusive and murky.”

For practitioners, when something is thought to be important (e.g., ‘emergence’) but is “elusive and murky,” one seeks clarity from a compelling example that is honest to experience and clearly described. And, particularly for engineers, clarifying descriptions come in the form of sketches that allow one to see past all sorts of distractions to uncover what is fundamental to a problem. Too often, wordy dissertations, sophisticated definitions, and impressive citations serve to confuse rather than clarify. “Draw a sketch” is a common practitioner response to a matter that is “elusive and murky.” And, practitioners know, from education and experience, that drawing a sketch that is both simple and meaningful is an art that requires practice, reviews, and revisions.

What needs to be sketched? We do know that emergence has something to do with the character of wholes that cannot be reduced to the character parts. Thus, this paper will sketch the character of whole patterns of human behaviors that cannot be reduced to the character of the individuals involved. Through such sketches, this paper will demonstrate—but only if you work through the sketches—the nature and significance of emergence in the study of evil. Why evil?

To merely blame individuals—presuming that evil outcomes arise from evil people—is to avoid (preclude, presume away) the essential claim of emergence: that the character of wholes should not be reduced to the character of parts. If we believe that this central claim of emergence is valid, then we cannot avoid a disturbing possibility: evil (distorting, threatening, harmful) outcomes can emerge through the efforts of normal, competent, and well adjusted people much like ourselves. This paper seeks to expose this possibility as terribly real. We begin with an episode from recent history.

The episode: Rebirth Island, Aral Sea, 1982

It was a desolate place, an island in the Aral Sea that divided Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. “Languishing fifty miles off the Kazakh shoreline in waters so polluted by the runoff of agricultural fertilizers that nothing could possibly live in them any more, it was the antithesis of its name.” But now, Rebirth Island was the place where Biopreparat—an upstart organization in the Soviet Union—could prove its worth.

Biopreparat was formed in 1973 to recruit the “nation’s best biologist, epidemiologist, and biologchemist.” In 1979, General Yury Tikhonovich Kalinin took over Biopreparat. Kalinin had remarkable abilities. He was able to break Biopreparat free from the rigid army hierarchy, while securing enormous funds to support extensive laboratories across the country staffed by sixty thousand personnel including some of the best young researchers in the country. Now, on the desolate Rebirth Island, Biopreparat would test its first biological weapon, tularemia.

“Tularemia is a debilitating disease.” Biopreparat “had obtained, from a leading international research institute in Europe, a strain capable of overcoming immunity in vaccinated monkeys.” As far as they knew, “There had never been an attempt anywhere in the world to weaponize a vaccine-resistant strain of tularemia.” The test provided an opportunity to prove what Biopreparat could do. It’s director, Kalinin, saw it as a key to the success of the program.

The “best” biological weapons, agents, “were those for which there was no known cure.” Thus, biological research was in a continuing race to stay ahead of cures, antibiotics, and vaccines. Biopreparat was about to demonstrate that it could meet the demands of this race. “Five hundred monkeys were ordered from Africa for tularemia tests on Rebirth Island.” “All of the monkeys had to be immunized before they were exposed.” After all, they “were testing a vaccine-resistant weapon.”

As test results filtered back from Rebirth Island, “the news was better than anyone had expected.” Upon hearing the results, the head of Biopreparat, Kalinin, called Kanatjan Alibekov, chief of technological development, and enthusiastically told him, “You’re a Great Man!” “Other congratulatory calls followed from colleagues in Moscow who had heard about the results.” Alibekov received a special military medal.

But a mistake in the test procedure had been discovered. The credibility of Biopreparat was challenged by critics. But, Kanatjan Alibekov turned this potentially damaging result around. In his own words:

“The next year we conducted new tests with an even more efficient dry variant of tularemia, following all the procedures meticulously, and the new version of weaponized tularemia entered the Soviet arsenal. The achievement launched Biopreparat as a significant force in the nation’s weapons establishment.”

During this tularemia effort, a meeting took place. Alibekov was told by Kalinin, “I’m going to nominate you as deputy director of Omutninsk,” a major research facility. Alibekov had a hard time believing this. He was six years out of graduate school, a thirty-one-year-old captain with a lot of energy and only a few achievements for it. He gained the attention of those in higher position because of a technique he had recently developed for improving biological weapons production.

Alibekov was called to Kalinin’s office. When he arrived, he heard shouting behind closed doors. A red faced man barreled out of the meeting room, stopped and looked over Alibekov. He was furious. “I don’t know what you think you’re up to!” he barked. “You’re nothing but a puppy.” He stormed back into the office. Clearly there were those who resented the advancement of younger people, regardless of their qualifications. Clearly, the head of Biopreparat, Kalinin, thought otherwise. A short time later Kalinin came out of his office looking “mildly apologetic.” He told Alibekov to return to his hotel. He would call.

Kalinin called Alibekov later in the afternoon to congratulate him. Alibekov had been promoted to the new deputy director at Omutninsk. How did Kalinin convince the “armchair generals” that this “puppy” should be promoted? Kalinin replied that he convinced them that despite his young age he would “do all right.”

Fearfully, Alibekov ventured, “How?”

“You’ll turn our tularemia project around,” Kalinin answered. In Alibekov’s words:

“It was an assignment no scientist of my age and experience could have expected to get so early in his career... I knew the project was fraught with risk, but I was caught up in the challenge.”

Alibekov did indeed turn the tularemia project around and he advanced to higher positions within Biopreparat.

Two Prayers

This episode is based upon the actual accounts of Kanatjan Alibekov, the first deputy chief of Biopreparat. In 1992, he defected to the United States and changed his name to Ken Alibek. The quotes in the episode above come from Alibek’s book (Alibek, 1999). In the prolog to this book Alibek tells more about Rebirth Island.

“On a bleak island in the Aral Sea, one hundred monkeys are tethered to posts set in parallel rows stretching out toward the horizon. A muffled thud breaks the stillness. Far in the distance, a small metal sphere lifts into the sky then hurtles downward, rotating, until it shatters in a second explosion.

Some seventy-five feet above the ground, a cloud the color of dark mustard begins to unfurl, gently dissolving as it glides down toward the monkeys. They pull at their chains and begin to cry. Some bury their heads between their legs. A few cover their mouths or noses, but it is too late: they have already begun to die.

At the other end of the island, a handful of men in biological protective suits observe the scene from binoculars, taking notes. In a few hours, they will retrieve the still-breathing monkeys and return them to cages where the animals will be under continuous examination for the next several days until, one by one, they die of anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague.

These are the tests I supervised throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. They formed the foundation of the Soviet Union’s spectacular breakthroughs in biological warfare” (Alibek, 1999: ix).

At the end of his book he writes:

“As a young boy in Kazakhstan I once came across a book about a doctor who risked his life and health to heal his patients. He was the physician I dreamed of becoming. I cannot unmake the weapons I manufactured or undo the research I authorized as scientific chief of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program; but every day I do what I can to mitigate their effects... This is my way of honoring the medical oath I betrayed for so many years” (Alibek, 1999: 292).

We can respond to Alibek’s confessional account from two radically different perspectives. The first is expressed in the prayer, “thank God we’re not like him.” The expression comes almost automatically when we are confronted by the terrible program described in Alibek’s account. The second prayer is “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”[2]. This expression, from an ancient prayer, is troubling and paradoxical. Evil repulses us but temptation attracts us. Moreover, the word “us”—employed twice—is inclusive. It includes Alibekov and myself! How could this be? I’ve never worked in a biological weapons program and I’m horrified, not tempted, by Alibekov’s ‘achievements’. The first prayer, “thank God I’m not like him,” comes so easily. It allows me to set aside these disturbing and terrible matters. I can’t imagine myself doing such terrible things. Despite such strong reactions, it is the second more challenging prayer that we will follow. It is an expression, not of belief, but of commitment to consider troubling matters in a deeper way. It involves confessional discipline, a demanding effort to look past the particular individuals and events to uncover something that is familiar, tempting, and crucial to the outcomes that emerged.


Behavioral interactions found at the end of the Rebirth Island episode. When reading, say “therefore” if you move forward on an arrow, “because” if you move backward.

Uncovering the context

Look back on this episode, Rebirth Island, 1982. Amid the tularemia testing, there is a meeting. It seems incidental, easy to overlook. And, yet, in such seemingly incidental events we find evidence of a powerful force lurking in the background, hidden by the terrible outcomes it produces. This is the force of context. To grasp such power, we will explain human behaviors in a way that is radically different from the ways we explain mere objects.

The behaviors of objects are explained through deterministic laws—rule-like causes—as done in Newtonian mechanics (note: I taught engineering mechanics for many years). Unlike, mere objects, we humans can act out a virtually infinite set of possible behaviors. The question is: why, within a given context, do we act out only a tiny fraction of these possibilities? And, how do we know what this tiny fraction should be? This paper answers: we humans are context sensitive beings. We know that to act out of context (e.g., yelling and cheering in a library) invites a social reproach that we are strongly motivated to avoid. It is, of course, physically possible to act out of context—law like causality is not involved—but, within a context, we sense reasons to not do so. Context is thus a powerful force in human affairs but, for the most part, it is hidden and taken for granted in our normal (e.g., context accommodating) behaviors (Bella, et al., 2003).

Contexts do not precisely define our behaviors. Instead, they produce the background from which we shift attentions, initiatives, and actions in some ways rather than others. In organizational systems, such as Biopreparat, contexts provided coherence to the diverse and changing activities of many individuals with different personalities, skills, and beliefs.

To expose the character of a context requires a method that forces us to see past all sorts of busyness and distracting details to uncover background patterns that have persistent and pervasive influence upon behaviors. The method employed herein does this by drawing upon the narratives arising from the lived experience of those involved, knowledge in the Biblical sense[3]. To apply this method, notice general behaviors seen or inferred at the end of the episode. These are sketched in Figure 1. To read, begin with any statement. Move forward or backward along an arrow. Say “therefore” if you move forward, “because” if you move backward. Read the next statement and continue, forward or backward.


Note that each behavior (boxed statement) now has at least one incoming arrow (reason) and one outgoing arrow (consequence).

These behaviors point to the competence of Alibekov and Kalinin. Kalinin comes across as an exceptional manager. He promotes Alibekov, a young non-Russian, on merit, even when he has to take on powerful opponents to do so. Alibekov, in turn, accepts the responsibilities given to him. These behaviors are expressions of a continuing pattern in Alibekov’s career in Biopreparat. This pattern can be uncovered by employing two common sense guidelines.

  1. Behaviors continue because they have continuing reasons that make sense from the perspective of those acting out the behaviors;

  2. Continuing behaviors have consequences that continue.

In Figure 2, the behaviors sketched in Figure 1 are rearranged. The first guideline is met because each behavior (boxed statement) now has at least one incoming arrow, a reason. The second guideline is met because each behavior has at least one outgoing arrow, a consequence. The pattern that results from these guidelines appears in the form of mutually reinforcing loops. Read through the entire pattern through many routes; read forward (say “therefore”) and backward (say “because”) until you get the whole picture.

We can imagine others in Biopreparat, the “nation’s best biologists, epidemiologists and biochemists,” experiencing the same pattern. Figure 3 restates the pattern to include the voices of other competent people. Alibekov advanced in the system because he was competent; that is, he was able to excel within the context of competency sketched in Figure 3. Had he failed, Kalinin would have selected someone else.

Contexts emerge as behaviors settle into such patterns. Applying a phrase from Kauffman (1995), contexts are “collectively autocatalytic” patterns of order in human affairs. And, because such patterns provide multiple and self-reinforcing reasons (shown by incoming arrows), they exert a powerful influence upon the behaviors of people within them. This pattern (Figure 3) looks quite good, even idealistic. Indeed, as organizational systems adaptively shift toward more effective and self-sustaining arrangements, we should expect such patterns to emerge at multiple levels. A colleague told me, “I wish I worked in such a system.” It is here that the paradoxical prayer—“lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”—provokes us. Temptations don’t repulse us, they attract us and the word “us” includes Alibekov, my colleague, and myself.


Three behaviors (dotted lines) are added to Figure 3.

The demonic

Competence can be seen as being fit, well adjusted, and well adapted to the context sketched in Figure 3. Kalinin and Alibekov were competent in this way (Figure 2). The production of effective biological weapons on such massive scales required the competent actions of many people. While these people differed in skills, personalities, and fields of competence, their actions were acted out within contexts of the character sketched in Figure 3. Our attention should be drawn, not to the character of the individuals, but to the character of the context. But, now consider a troubling matter. In Alibek’s words,

“The government I served perceived no contradiction between the oath every doctor takes to preserve life and our preparations for mass murder. For a long time, neither did I” (p. x)

How could he not perceive this contradiction?

To answer, we need to understand what has been trivialized in our modern age, the ‘demonic’. Drawing upon a leading theologian of the twentieth century (Tillich, 1963), the demonic is always associated with the good. The demonic emerges when a vehicle to Goodness becomes overextended until it becomes a substitute for Goodness itself. As an example, tests can be vehicles (means) to student learning, but when passing tests becomes overextended until it becomes a substitute for learning itself—US students call this “plug and chug; cram and flush”—then passing tests becomes demonic; it becomes the substitute for learning (Bella, et al., 2003).

Let us now show how competence becomes demonic. Start with Figure 3. Add only three behavior statements and arrows consistent with our common sense guidelines. The result is shown in Figure 4. Notice how the avoidance of troubling matters and negative implications actually strengthen the pattern. Referring to Figure 4, this strengthening is shown by an additional incoming arrow to the statements “Our work contributes to the success of the program” and “We gain a positive self-identity from our work.”

Yes, competence can serve to “preserve life,” but it can also serve “preparations for mass murder” (quotes from Alibek). When the pursuit of competence—the drive to excel, be affirmed by peers, and accomplish things never done before—becomes a driving force in itself, then competence can become demonic.

When Alibekov and his young colleagues first entered Biopreparat, they agonized over the moral implications of their work. “Kan, we’re doctors!” a troubled friend exclaimed. “How can we do this?” But, as they gained competence, as they proved themselves, as they became “caught up in the challenge,” such troubling concerns receded. In Alibek’s words,

“I was developing a reputation for getting results. Uncertainties about the direction of my life, and the morality of what I was doing, had long since receded” (p 82).

A transformation of Alibekov occurred as his identity was given over to the system.

“The idealistic young doctor from Tomsk who had agonized over the difference between saving lives and taking them was gone. The worst possible fate for me had become banishment from Biopreparat, and from the privileges that came with it... [T]he secret culture of our labs had changed my outlook. My parents would not have recognized the man I had become” (pp. 101-102).

The drive to excel within the context became a powerful hunger, a calling, that so consumed Alibekov and his colleagues that they overlooked the terrible outcomes of their work. Alibek tells us,

“The hunger to be on the newest frontier of biology was so powerful that scientists who answered the call to participate in the new program were willing to overlook its connection with weapons-making” (p. 157).

But, to satisfy this “powerful hunger” one had to excel within the context of competence. Then, having tasted accomplishment, recognition from peers, affirmation from superiors, respect from subordinates, and a positive self-identity, the hunger gained power. And in the busyness of work—with its demands, challenges, and risks—it became “normal” to “overlook its connection to weapons-making.” Here the word ‘normal’ means well adjusted, fit, and competent within the context. In Alibek’s confessional account, we are confronted with the power of contexts, emergent patterns that shape behaviors of normal people in ways so subtle and strong that an idealistic young healer was transformed into a producer of “mass murder.” The context was crucial! If we fail to grasp the nature and power of contexts, if we overlook the ways contexts shape our own behaviors, we will have overlooked a powerful force in human affairs; this could be a very dangerous failure.

Contexts as attractors

Alibek describes a 1988 meeting in which plans were made to arm intercontinental missiles, SS-18s, with a potent form of anthrax.

“New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago were some of the targets to come up in subsequent meetings, but they were abstract concepts to me at the time. All I cared about was ensuring that our weapons would do the job they were designed for... I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people” (p. 7).

With this form of anthrax, Alibek writes, “a single SS-18 could wipe out the population of a city as large as New York.” The meeting went on to go over the available menu of “toxic choices.”

“Plague could be prepared on a similar schedule. The plague weapon we had created in our laboratories was more virulent than the bubonic plague, which killed one quarter of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages. Smallpox was stockpiled in underground bunkers at our military plants, and we were developing a weapon prototype based on a rare filovirus called Marburg, a cousin of Ebola... Our meeting ended after an hour or so of additional calculations. We shook hands, packed our papers, and congratulated one another on a productive session” (p. 7-8).

How can we explain such behaviors? Some might answer, “Those people were dedicated communists,” “They were only following orders,” or “They had no choice.” Alibek’s account exposes such answers as superficial at best and even absurd. We might point to the environment of the Cold War and the threats they perceived from the United States. Alibek’s account provides some support for this kind of answer, but only partially. What his honest account does reveal as powerful, pervasive, and essential is the drive to be highly competent. Such competence required initiative, not mere following of orders. It demanded dedication, not to communism, but to competence itself. It called for devotion and sacrifice, not to the state, but to work, science and research. And through such dedication, devotion, and sacrifice, Alibekov and many others did indeed become highly competent in what they did. And then, driven to be highly competent, to be “on the newest frontier of biology,” they were able to “overlook its connection with weapons-making.” The model presented herein, Figure 4, seeks to explain this, not by describing the character of individuals, but rather the character of the context within which they excelled.

Consider an analogy. Imagine a square table with a top that is flat and white. We place a number of coins on the table and shake it. A video camera looks down on the table top and records the coins as they shift back and forth. Assume the table has a reflective edge to prevent the shifting coins from falling off. If we initially placed the coins in a cluster and then shook the table, the video, taken from above, would show a tendency for the coins to spread across the table. But, now imagine that in one corner of the table (say the lower left as viewed from the video camera above), I pressed the table surface downward to form a basin, a bowl or depression. Then, after distributing the coins across the surface, I again shook the table. What would you see recorded on the video taken from above? You would, of course, see coins shifting about. But, amid this shifting, you would see a tendency among all the coins to gravitate toward the base of the basin in the lower left region of the table (viewed from above).

Now consider the table surface to be a map of behavior space as shown in Figure 5. Imagine that the position of a particular coin represents the behavior of an individual within Biopreparat. As we shake the table, we notice that the positions of coins shift, indicating shifting behaviors among individuals. The precise shift of a particular person (coin) at a specific time is unpredictable. But, as before, the general shift will be toward the basin of attraction as shown on our map.


The character of the basin is sketched in Figure 4.

To explain this general shift, it would make no sense to pick up each coin and carefully examine it. This is analogous to our study of Biopreparat. As with the coins, examining the character of individuals tells us little. It is the base of the basin that demands our attention. Following Kauffman, “we can roughly think of an attractor as a lake, and the basin of attraction as the water drainage flowing into the lake” (Kauffman, 1995: 78). In human affairs, contexts act as attractors, drawing behaviors into their regions of behavior space as sketched in Figure 5. Thus, the character of a context (attractor, base of a basin, emergent pattern) is crucial; this character can be sketched. And following our analogy, if one of the coins had our name on it, it too would be drawn to the attractor.

The common context: Radical implications

In the Soviet Union, Alibekov and his colleagues “could not take the risk of making close friends outside of the program.” “In our isolation,” he tells us, “we found relationships among ourselves”[4]. While their particular skills, personalities, assignments, and fields of specialty were diverse, they held in common the context sketched in Figure 4. Of course, there were other factors shaping their behaviors. But, when explaining how so many people could do such things, the character of the common context within which they devoted their time, energy, and abilities must be seen as crucial.

Now, let us consider, not the horrors of Biopreparat but rather the underlying context sketched in Figure 4. To sense the character of this context, conduct a simple experiment. Do not try to “figure out” Figure 4. Instead, simply read through it, forward ( “therefore”) and backward ( “because”), until you grasp the character of the pattern as a whole. Then, imagine that you discover some “troubling matter” that has been avoided by competent people (i.e., people acting within the pattern). Imagine that you have the opportunity to ask them questions. Your questions and their answers are given in Table 1. One of the most telling and disturbing insights from this exercise is how familiar these responses sound, how ordinary. Troubling matters are overlooked by ordinary people who say, “I’m too busy,” “It’s not my job,” or “There is nothing I can do.” Within the context sketched in Figure 4, such responses (Table 1) make sense.

Our inquiry challenges us—practitioners who have proven our competence—to face up to three things. First, the answers given in Table 1 are familiar and reasonable because they arise within a common context. Second, through our own competent (e.g., in context) behaviors, we too gain position, recognition, and a positive identity (Figure 4); here are temptations. Indeed, Figure 4 provides a good description of the context within which university professors, myself included, prove our competence and gain our identity. Third, evil can emerge from such competent behaviors on scales greater than any individual or group could pull off; Alibek’s book testifies to this. The prayer “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” thus addresses a reality common to our own lives and capable of great harm. If, in contrast, we can only see evil in the horrible acts of others, acts that repulse rather than tempt (attract) us, then perhaps we are unable or unwilling to understand the nature of evil.

Taking emergence seriously

In Biopreparat, we make two observations. First, we see order in human affairs on vast scales. Second, we see outcomes that portend dangers so disturbing that the word evil is justified. In both cases—order and evil in human affairs—common explanations fail to grasp the radical implications of emergence: that wholes cannot be reduced to parts (Richardson, 2004). In the case of order, it is commonly assumed that “Somebody must be in charge!” Similarly for evil, it is commonly assumed that “Evil people did this!” Emergence challenges such views.

Self-organization occurs in both human and nonhuman systems (Kauffman, 1991, 1995). No one need be in charge. Order often emerges on scales of complexity far greater than the capacity of individuals (ants, termites, people) to design. Moreover, the character of emergent wholes cannot be reduced to the character of the parts. Funny jokes cannot be reduced to funny words. Likewise, evil outcomes that emerge from human systems cannot be reduced to the evil character of the individuals. None of this denies that there are powerful people who are good organizers or evil people who do bad things. Instead, this paper claims that when considering order and evil, emergence must be taken seriously. That is, evil can emerge as problems of “organized complexity” in human affairs and such problems, by their very nature, cannot be addressed through established analytical methods (Weaver, 1948).

The implications for the study of emergence are radical. This paper is in agreement with fundamental claims of emergence (Holland, 1998; Tasaka, 1999; Wheatley, 1999). I agree that emergence provides coherence in human affairs far beyond the ability of intentional design. I agree that it allows people to become part of something greater than themselves, giving them identity, purpose, and meaning. Capabilities that emerge in human affairs do exceed the sum of individual capabilities.

But, despite such valid insights, the emergence of evil—outcomes that portent great harm—has not been sufficiently addressed in the study of emergence. Emergence in organizations has been more commonly described in positive terms. To be blunt, much of the literature on emergence in human affairs has been too nice, more positive and affirming than the evidence justifies. That is, “the tendency to emphasize the beneficial nature of emergence seems to be a taken-for-granted attitude in complexity science,” (Goldstein, 2000: 18). While the positive possibilities of emergence should not be denied, we must also face its darker side. And, in doing so, we challenge practices that have arisen in recent times.


Responses of participants within the competence context (Figure 4)

Person AddressedQuestion AskedAnswer
Any ParticipantDo you consider yourself a responsible person?Of course I do! I accept responsibility for the work I do and I do it well; ask my peers.
But, aren’t there some troubling matters that are not being addressed?Well, I suppose there are. But, it’s not my job to deal with them; I’m busy enough.
So who should address such matters?I really don’t know, but it’s not my job. The people I’ve known through work are, for the most part, competent, responsible, and hard working. If they aren’t, we should get rid of them.
You mean get rid of people who don’t go along?I wouldn’t put it that way. We should help people who have problems. But, if they can’t or won’t accept responsibilities like the rest of us, then we can’t continue to support them.
Participant in Lower PositionAre these troubling matters being addressed?I can’t say. I assume that they are. But you’ll need to speak to those in higher positions. They are the ones with broader responsibilities.
Participant in Higher PositionHave these troubling matters been addressed?I can assure you that the people working in our program are highly competent. They take their responsibilities seriously. I have utmost confidence in their ability to do what is needed.
Do you selectively support some work and not other work?Of course I do! That’s my job! If the work is done well and supports the program, I do whatever I can to provide the resources the work needs.
Any ParticipantBut shouldn’t these matters be addressed?Perhaps, but, it’s not my job! Even if I tried to address such matters, I couldn’t change anything so I stick to my own work and do it well.
And you get a sense of accomplishment from that work?Yes, I do! And quite frankly, I’d rather not be troubled by your concerns. There is nothing I could do about them except maybe depress myself.
So you stay focused on your work?Yes. It’s challenging work and I don’t have the luxury of wasting time on other matters that won’t make a bit of difference any way.

In recent decades, the word evil has been used as an accusation to define the character of one’s enemies. The exclamation, “Thank God we’re not like them!” follows such use. Thus, the Soviet Union was defined by President Ronald Reagan as an “evil empire,” an accusation not unnoticed in the Soviet Union. Alibek writes:

“We didn’t need hawkish intelligence briefings to persuade us of the danger. Our newspapers chafed over Reagan’s description of our country as an evil empire, and the angry rhetoric of our leaders undermined the sense of security most of us had grown up with during the détente of the 1970s. Although we joked amongst ourselves about the senile old men in the Kremlin, it was easy to believe that the West would seize upon our moment of weakness to destroy us. It was even conceivable that our army strategists would call for a preemptive strike, perhaps with biological weapons” (p. 89-90).

This paper has looked into this “evil empire,” examining a program that would indeed fit definitions of evil. But, instead of mere accusation of “them,” this study followed the paradoxical prayer, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The paradox involved emergence. Ordinary people (we) were drawn into self-reinforcing patterns, contexts, that gave them (us) identity, support, purpose, and meaning ( “temptation”). Within such contexts, they devoted their time and abilities to their competent work to such an extent that they overlooked troubling matters arising from this work, even when such matters led to great threat on vast scales ( “evil”). And we discovered that the pattern through which this occurred is familiar! We too have been caught up in such a pattern. The prayer “thank God we’re not like them” is wrong!

The emergence of evil—arising from whole systems and not reducible to the character of individuals—may sound like a radical notion. However, it is an ancient view expressed in the prophetic tradition. Biblical scholar Markus Borg (1997: 141) writes:

“The passion for social justice that we see in the prophets is a protest against systemic evil... [S]ystemic evil is a major source (perhaps the single greatest cause) of human suffering.

Importantly, the issue is not the goodness or wickedness of the elite individuals. Elites can be good people: devout, responsible, courageous; kind, gentle, charming, intelligent; committed to family, loyal to friends, and so forth. Moreover, systemic evil is not necessarily intended even by some who benefit from it. So the issue is not character flaws among the elites” (p. 141).

Clearly, this prophetic view challenges the modern motion that evil outcomes can be reduced to the evil character of individuals, people quite different, of course, from ourselves. The study of emergence and evil in our own age, I claim, supports this prophetic challenge, not by claiming the ‘factuality’ of particular events in ancient tales, but rather by discovering that their insights on matters of great importance are relevant to our own age.


The evidence is clear that in the Soviet Union, people, resources, and expertise were drawn together on a vast scale for “preparations for mass murder” (Alibek’s words). But, the evidence does not support the explanation that such evil was the direct outcome of calculated plans, deliberate designs, and specific orders from the command and control center in the Kremlin. Nor was this the result of deranged minds. The evidence points to something more chilling, something too dangerous to overlook, the emergence of systemic evil.

In the absence of independent checks and the presence of insulating secrecy, mutually reinforcing patterns of competent behaviors emerged at multiple levels to form the coherent whole known as Biopreparat. Its emergent competence and collective claim on resources became mutually reinforcing. And from this emerged the ability to mobilize the latest scientific knowledge to produce the means for mass slaughter of a horrible kind. The essential and pervasive motivation was the drive to demonstrate one’s competence within the contexts of the emergent system[5].

At the end of her widely acclaimed book (revised edition, 1999), Margaret Wheatley wrote:

“I have found that nature and people provide more hopeful examples of self-organization than I can possibly comprehend” (Wheatley, 1999: 168).

With respect to emergence in human affairs, my own conclusion rephrases this statement:

I have found that people provide more hopeful, paradoxical, demonic, and evil examples of self-organization than I can possibly comprehend.

By “hopeful” I mean that self-organization can indeed lead to much that is good. By “paradoxical” I mean that the character of the emergent outcomes can be quite different than the character of the people involved. By “demonic” I refer to the emergence of self-reinforcing patterns that define the good—for those involved—in ways that sustain the patterns themselves. By “evil” I refer to emergent patterns (contexts) that mobilize great power and sustain the dedication, devotion, and sacrifice of many competent people—much like ourselves—leading them (us) to overlook troubling matters and produce outcomes that portent great harm, threat, and danger. The assumption that evil outcomes depend upon the intentions of evil people ( “Thank God we’re not like them”) is both dangerous and wrong.

But, this troubling conclusion is also an opening, an opportunity and challenge, to reconsider common notions of responsibility. While acknowledging the responsibilities of competence—doing one’s work well—this conclusion provokes us to acknowledge a very different kind of responsibility, a “response-ability” that transcends, goes beyond, contexts, including (especially) contexts of competence. The prophetic name for such transcendent responsibility is faith[6]. In a competence driven world, however, faith has been transformed—trivialized—to mean strong beliefs often held in the face of contrary evidence. Thus, in the name of “faith,” people justify their actions because they are “based upon their beliefs.” Wilfred Cantwell Smith, eminent historian of comparative religion, describes this notion—faith equals belief—as a “modern heresy” that leads to “monstrous confusion”[7].

The study of emergence and evil can help to challenge this “monstrous confusion.” It does this by showing that evil outcomes can and do emerge, not because the people involved are themselves evil but rather because ordinary people, much like ourselves, fail to live out responsibilities that transcend the emergent patterns (contexts) that they (we) work within. Prophetic faith involves responsibility that transcends contexts. Such faith calls us “out of bondage” to systems that capture our very identity. The prophetic traditions involves a calling to open our eyes, expand our imagination, to see what captures our devotion of time and energy, our very lives. It calls for something more than going along and getting ahead. And such responsibility can lead to out-of-context acts of faith that disturb and reform evil systems. The failure to live out such responsibility—faith in the prophetic sense—can be horrific. And such responsibility cannot be simply turned over to those most competent, the experts. On such crucial matters, this paper and prophetic tradition agree.


[1] In this paper, “emergence” is understood in a way consistent with the general statements of Holland (1998). “Recognizable features and patterns are pivotal in this study of emergence... The crucial step is to extract the regularities from incidental and irrelevant details... This process is called modeling... Each model concentrates on describing a selected aspect of the world, setting aside other aspects as incidental” (pp. 4-5). “[E]mergence usually involves patterns of interaction that persist despite a continuing turnover in the constituents of the patterns” (p. 7). “Emergence, in the sense used here, occurs only when the activities of the parts do not simply sum to give activity of the whole” (p. 14).

[2] This two thousand year old expression is from the “Lord’s Prayer” found in the Christian tradition.

[3] The method has been applied to the tobacco industry (Bella, 1996), educational failures (Bella, et al., 2003), and distortions of information in organizations (Bella, 1987, 1997; Bella, et al., 2003). In all cases, bad outcomes could not be simply reduced to bad people. This method stands in contrast to computer simulations that see people as rule following agents. Lissack and Richardson (2000) provide a critique of such simulations; their critique is supported by my own experiences. Since the mid 1960s, my own research and teaching were in the field of computer simulation of ecosystems. But, experience—involvement with a wide range of real world problems—forced me to approach human systems in a radically different way. This “alternative perspective” (Heitt, 2001) is a response to such lived experiences, my own and others.

[4] Largely because of an independent citizenry and institutional checks, the United States renounced its program to develop biological weapons in 1969. The Soviet Union continued its program, in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (Miller, et al., 2001).

[5] The academic literatures from many fields (psychology, sociology, theology, etc.) describe many kinds of human motivations (ideology, beliefs, approval, etc.). This paper adds the following: First, motivation (compelling force or dive) in human affairs can and does arise through the emergence of self-reinforcing behavioral patterns. Second, through such emergent patterns, the normal (in context) behaviors of ordinary people, much like ourselves, can lead to outcomes that fit definitions of evil. Third, the drive to prove one’s competence within the context of such patterns can amplify the scale of such harm. Fourth, the character of such patterns is often hidden and taken for granted. Fifth, a method is presented to expose the character of such patterns. Sixth, the method draws upon the experiences of practitioners. Seventh, all of the above are demonstrated through a compelling real world example.

[6] The writings of the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith explore the meaning of faith through the ages. Drawing upon many traditions, ancient and modern (including secular, Christian, and Islamic), Smith makes a profound and convincing case that “faith has not and is not belief.” In Smith’s words, “Faith is the human orientation to transcendence” (1977: 84). But, Smith shows we moderns live in a “non-transcendence-oriented culture (the first such in human history).” This paper seeks to show that great harm—yes, even evil—can emerge when a “non-transcendence” notion of responsibility is acted out.

[7] Smith is certainly not alone in his claim that faith is not belief. Paul Tillich, one of the leading Christian theologians of the twentieth century, wrote, “It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with the belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories” (Tillich, 1957: 87). “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” (Tillich, 1957: 1). Abraham Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian, wrote, “Faith is not the same as belief, not the same as the attitude of regarding something as true,” (Heschel, 1978: 154).



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