Many biologists will recognize the statement that ''the whole is more than the sum of the parts'' as a commonly used (but hardly understood) phrase. This formulation refers to the idea that there are systems which possess additional qualities or quantities, beyond easily measurable or predictable physical parameters. The resulting properties have been described on many levels of the biological hierarchy, from simple physical systems, like laser beams, to the organization of the whole biosphere within the Gaia concept of J. Lovelock. The emergent property at one level is in general finding its causality at the subsystem components and the interaction between them. For example, an organized form of cell functions, stemming from self-organized transformations of cellular compounds, known as hypercycling may be considered as an emergent entity; at the physiological levels we are, for example, dealing with the mating behaviors of organisms as results of hormone interactions. Similarly, motion, feelings, or intelligent behavior occur as a consequence of special couplings of neurons. In addition, the patterns in the development of ecosystems may not be predictable from knowledge of organisms alone. Therefore, emergent properties are not unusual phenomena, but simply consequences of hierarchical organizations.

The concept of emergence found its way into ecology through the proposal of E. P. Odum, who suggested that the study of emergence should lead to a 'new integrative discipline'. This idea was due to the fact that studies of complex systems had shown that the investigations of the details alone were not adequate in predicting ecosystem function and behavior. Neither were they sufficient to explain a more advanced pattern like behavior and performance of ecosystems, for example, during the succession from young systems toward more mature states.

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