Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind
By Peter Corning. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge CB2 2RU, United Kingdom, 2003, 454 p. ISBN 0-521-82547-4.
Reviewed by Johan M.G. van der Dennen. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Dutch there is a proverb meaning something like “serving the mustard after the meal”. The book The Triumph of Sociobiology by Alcock (2001) appeared just around the time that the last society with ‘sociobiology’ in its name (The European Sociobiological Society) ceased to exist as an independent organization by merging with ISHE. A triumph? Pyrrhic victory? Or just mustard after the meal?
Peter Corning’s opus magnum Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution appears in the year that the Dutch voted the term ‘synergy’ to be among the top ten of most abused business and management buzz words. Mustard after the meal? Well, let us find out…
Peter Corning has, unwittingly, been one of my mentors of the first hour. When I was a young, beginning and inexperienced researcher studying aggression, violence and war, Corning’s publication “Toward a general theory of violent aggression” (1972), his 1975 paper “An evolutionary paradigm for the study of human aggression”, and his subsequent volume The Synergism Hypothesis (1983), struck me as being far ahead of their time, and pointed me in the direction I am still following (and ardently advocating): the evolutionary paradigm.
The Nature’s Magic book is a paean to synergy. Corning attempts to show “that synergy is of central importance in virtually every scientific discipline, though it very often travels incognito under various aliases (mutualism, cooperativity, symbiosis, win-win, emergent effect, a critical mass, coevolution, interaction, threshold effects, even non-zerosumness)” (p. 5). (Some may find this a perfect example of Corningian ‘imperial overstretch’). It is, he holds, novel forms of functional energy (cooperative effects) that have been responsible, over time, for shaping the progressive evolution of complexity in nature through a process that can be characterized (after biologist John Maynard Smith) as ‘synergistic selection’. Corning calls this new evolutionary paradigm ‘Holistic Darwinism’. Natural selection differentially rewards, of disfavors, different genes and gene combinations, based on the effects they produce in a given environment. It is the functional payoffs that matter. Cooperation and competition are commonly intertwined – in fact, many forms of cooperation exist in order to better compete as a team. Many forms of cooperation are entirely selfish, and there is no need to postulate that cooperation results from altruism or similar ‘noble’ motives.
The varieties of synergy distinguished by Corning are:
(a) Synergies of scale (many forms of synergy arise from adding, or multiplying, more of the same thing. A bigger molecule, a bigger organism, a bigger group, or a bigger organization may be able to do things that smaller ones cannot. Synergies of scale can be greatly accelerated with multiplicative processes [exponential growth]);
(b) Threshold effects (These are special cases of a synergy of scale; Corning calls it “synergy plus one”. Threshold effects occur when a critical point is reached that precipitates an abrupt change of state. A familiar example is the old saw about “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Threshold effects may also travel incognito, disguised as a ‘critical mass’, an ‘optimum number’, and [in ecological circles] ‘density dependence’ and ‘frequency dependence’);
(c) Phase transitions (These are related to threshold phenomena. They involve an abrupt and radical change of state in many physical and biological systems under certain conditions. Physicists often use as examples the crystallization of water into ice, the loss of magnetic properties in ferromagnets at extremely high temperatures, or the onset of superconductivity in various materials at extremely low temperatures. The physicist Herman Haken, who has spent more than 20 years developing a science of cooperative phenomena called ‘synergetics’, likes to use the laser as an illustration);
(d) Gestalt effects (This term derives from a branch of psychology known as ‘Gestalt theory’. Founded in Germany before World War One, Gestalt psychology is concerned with the ability of the human mind to see patterns, relationships, or ‘wholes’ composed of many parts. Our Gestalt capabilities are especially apparent when some of the parts in a visual pattern are missing or garbled. The Gestalt theorists have also identified certain ‘laws’ of visual perception, such as proximity, similarity, good continuation, and closure. The term ‘Gestalt effects’ can also be used in a broader sense, though. It could refer to any synergistic effect that arises from the pattern of physical/spatial relationships among different parts – its form or structure);
(e) Functional complementarities (The water molecules that collectively produce the Mississippi river are all identical. So [more or less] are the grains of sand that make up a beach, or the vesicles of glutamate that trigger a neuronal spike. But many other forms of synergy depend on different properties or capabilities that join forces to give the combination new functional characteristics. Lichen symbioses [symbiotic partnerships between cyanobacteria and fungi] are an example. Likewise, aspirin and opium have analgesic properties in combination that exceed the sum of their separate effects);
(f) Emergent phenomena (The term ‘emergence’ should properly be confined to those forms of synergy in which different parts merge, lose their identity, and take on new physical or functional properties. The human body could be said to be an emergent phenomenon. Our many trillions of cells are interdependent and form a unified ‘whole’ of many parts that produces combined, synergistic effects. And so do the 20,000 parts in an automobile);
(g) Augmentation or facilitation (This involves combined, synergistic effects that enhance a dynamic process, or in some cases makes it possible. One example is catalysts, substances that decrease the activation energy required for various chemical reactions while themselves remaining unchanged. The enzymes that serve as catalysts in biochemical processes are especially important);
(h) Joint environmental conditioning (Through joint action individual organisms can often achieve significant economies, or efficiencies that would not otherwise be possible. Emperor penguins, for example, huddle together in tightly packed colonies, sometimes numbering 10,000 or more, for several months at a time. By doing so, they are able to share precious body heat, which would otherwise go to waste. Of course, animals often collectively reshape their environments in more active ways. Nests, dams, underground burrows, prepared sleeping sites, even woodland animal trails may be the product of joint efforts. And the same is true in humankind, needless to say);
(i) Risk- and cost-sharing (One of the pillars of social life, in both nature and human societies, is the ability to ‘economize’ by sharing with others the costs and risks inherent in living. There are innumerable examples in the natural world: fish schools, migratory bird formations, synchronized breeding, joint nest-building, collective foraging, and many more. Thus many birds and some animals divide up the job of lookout duty; they take turns scanning the environment for potential predators. One of the most dramatic example of cooperative risk-reduction in nature involve vampire bats, who have created a kind of mutual insurance system. Use-sharing is so pervasive in modern economies that we don’t think of it as being synergistic – a type of tacit cooperation that is mutually advantageous);
(j) A combination of labor (One of the most important sources of synergy – in nature and human societies alike – involves what the economists call a ‘division of labor’. Plato was perhaps the first social theorist to appreciate that synergy lies at the very foundation of human societies; the division of labor produces mutually beneficial results because different people have different aptitudes, and specialization increases a person’s skill and efficiency. The classical economist Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, provided us with one of the textbook examples. The writers of modern-day economic textbooks are fond of using Adam Smith’s pin factory as an illustration of the division of labor, but this characterization downplays the synergy. Another way of looking at the pin factory is in terms of how various specialized skills, tools, and production operations were combined into an organized ‘system’. It should really be called a ‘combination of labor’. The division/combination of labor is also widespread in nature. There are, for instance, the orb-web spiders that collaborate in building immense collective webs that span the woodland streams where their insect prey are especially abundant. There are also the many carnivores that engage in collaborative hunting behavior – wild dogs, wolves, chimpanzees, lions, and others);
(k) Animal-tool ‘symbiosis’ (The many functional relationships that exist in nature between organisms and various ‘tools’ amount to a form of symbiosis. The animal-tool relationship produces otherwise unattainable synergistic effects, many of which spell the difference between life and death. Thus, some birds use rocks to break open egg shells while other deploy thorns to dig for grubs under the bark of trees. Some chimpanzees use ‘wands’ to fish for buried insects while others use stone anvils and hammers to crack open the proverbial tough nuts. California sea otters are legendary for using rocks that rest on their bellies while they float on their backs as a ‘tool’ for breaking open mussels and other hard-shelled prey);
(l) Information sharing and collective intelligence (Information sharing is one of the more common forms of synergy, both in nature and in human societies. Indeed, all socially organized species absolutely depend on it. Very often it is a service that can be provided to others at no cost to the possessor, or at an incremental additional cost, while the benefits can be multiplied many times over. In socially organized species, alarm calling is especially well documented. Much of the vocalization that occurs in various species of birds, carnivores, dolphins, and primates relates to making group-level decisions about migration and foraging);
(m) Convergent (historical) effects (Last, and perhaps least appreciated, is one of the most pervasive and important forms of synergy in nature and human societies alike – the daily assault of fortuitous, often unexpected convergent effects that shape the evolutionary process. Here synergy and history join hands. Many of the synergies that surround us and impact upon our daily lives are unplanned, causally unconnected and highly context-dependent. For example, the fortuitous co-location only in the Fertile Crescent of key ‘founder crops’, especially emmer wheat (which could be domesticated with a single gene mutation), together with legumes and animal husbandry (which allowed for a balanced diet), meant that this was the most likely location for a ‘technological breakthrough’ that could provide food for a large, sedentary, concentrated population. Very often, synergy is not simply an object, but a process – a dynamic in which many things, and people may ‘work together’ [whether wittingly or not] to produce a new form of synergy. For these special moments of creation Corning suggests the term ‘Bingo Effect’).
The book consists of ten chapters with titles sometimes reminiscent of the book title with some Disney and Harry Potter thrown in. 1. Prologue: the New Evolutionary Paradigm; 2. The ‘Enchanted Loom’; 3. The Magic Castle; 4. ‘Black Magic’; 5. The Synergism Hypothesis; 6. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’; 7. Conjuring Human Evolution: The Synergistic Ape; 8. Conjuring History: Does Cultural Evolution Have an ‘Arrow’?; 9. The Science of History; and 10. Conjuring the Future: What Can We Predict?. Plus Afterword, Notes, References and Index.
Corning writes about such diverse subjects as quarks, genes, genomes, organisms, hominid evolution, human history, (bio)economics and an encyclopedic number of other issues with equal ease, confidence and conviction. Those of you who regularly participate in ISHE, HBES, or APLS conferences must know Peter Corning and his inspired, enthusiastic presentations.
Synergy, Corning claims, is a bottomless well of creativity in evolution, and especially the evolution of complexity. This may sound like a contradiction of Darwin’s theory and a cavalier rejection of 150 years (and more) of evolutionary biology. But, in fact, the opposite is true. This theory involves only a different way of viewing the same phenomena – a shift of focus (and emphasis) to a different aspect of the evolutionary process. It is entirely consistent with Darwin’s theory. Call it an economic approach – or perhaps ‘bioeconomics’. The Synergism Hypothesis views evolution as an ecological and economic process – a survival enterprise – in which living systems and their genes are embedded (p. 113).
Corning calls this view of evolution ‘Holistic Darwinism’, because the focus is on the selection of wholes, and the combinations of genes that produce those wholes. Simply stated, cooperative interactions of various kinds, however they may occur, can produce novel combined effects – synergies – that in turn become the causes of differential selection. The ‘parts’ that are responsible for producing the synergies (and their genes) then become interdependent ‘units’ of evolutionary change. In other words, it is the ‘payoffs’ associated with various synergistic effects in a given context that constitute the underlying cause of cooperative relationships – and complex organization – in nature. The synergy produced by the ‘whole’ provides the functional benefits that may differentially favor the survival and reproduction of the ‘parts.’ Although it may seem like backwards logic, the thesis is that functional synergy is the underlying cause of cooperation (and organization) in living systems, not the other way around. To repeat, the Synergism Hypothesis is really, at heart, an ‘economic’ theory of complexity in evolution (p. 117).
Corning’s new book makes for enjoyable reading, clear, lucid, and transparent formulations, imaginative metaphors and similes, an encyclopedic scope, and a high ‘convincibility factor’. There is only one thing wrong with a book like this for a reviewer like me: every page contains at least one passus or paragraph which begs to be quoted. In order to avoid these multiple temptations, I shall limit myself to a brief evaluation of Corning’s (Ch. 9) sometimes hilarious review of what he calls the ‘Neo-Pythagoreans’, and his treatment of hominid/human evolution and the role of collective violence in that many-million-years process (Ch. 7).
In his Chapter 9 (The Science of History) Corning reviews the history of the human imagination dealing (or coming to terms) with the complexity of the ‘real-world-out-there’ – from Pythagoras’ (sixth century BC) and Kepler’s mathematical mysticism of the ‘Music of the Spheres’ all the way to the sometimes obscurantist concepts invoked by pretentious contemporary magicians and prestidigitists to ‘explain’ the complexity of life (these constructions are technically known by the somewhat awkward name ‘ignotum per ignotius’, i.e., ‘explaining’ the unknown by introducing another, and even more obscure, unknown – a practice not unknown in the history of science): Lamarck’s “power of life”; Spencer’s “universal law of evolution”; Bergson’s “élan vital”; Driesch’s “entelechie”; Teilhard de Chardin’s “omega point”; Grassé’s “idiomorphon”; Schrödinger’s “negative entropy”; Prigogine’s “dissipative structures”; Kaufmann’s “laws of emergent order”; and, more recently, self-organization theory and complexity theory. Corning launches a plea to end the unproductive, vexatious – and often acrimonious – debate over ‘holism’ versus ‘reductionism’. In reality both are necessary but insufficient. It would be more productive
to shift our focus to ‘architectonics’ – the study of how the world has been ‘built up’ from the novel cooperative effects produced by many interacting parts; we need to focus more intently on the joint effects produced by the relationships that arise between things, or organisms. If reductionism is necessary for understanding how the ‘parts’ work and how they interact, holism is equally necessary for understanding ‘why’ living systems have evolved, and what effects they produce. As I suggested at the outset, the universe can be portrayed as a vast structure of synergies, a many-leveled ‘Magic Castle’ in which the synergies produced at one level serve as the building blocks for the next level. Moreover, unpredictable new forms of synergy, and even new principles, emerge at each new level of organization. This ultimately necessitates a science of history (pp. 297-298).
Corning’s treatment of the role of collective violence (especially warfare) in hominid/human evolution may be considered a vivid illustration of the roles of synergy and synthesis in science. Building on many sources (“ideas with many fathers”) from many (sub)disciplines (including my own Origin of War), hypotheses and speculations, Corning draws a picture of hominid/human evolution which is – given the evidence anno 2003 – the most integral and ‘verisimilitudinous’ I have encountered yet. It is a clear example of cross-fertilization, another source of synergism. Prepublications of this chapter have been presented at recent conferences (including ISHE) as “Synergy Goes to War”.
Far from being the umptieth “theory of everything”, Corning’s magnificent book presents an invitation to look at ‘everything’ in a novel and fresh way; and I can recommend it to all ISHE members, students and teachers alike.
Alcock, J. (2001) The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Corning, P.A. (1975) An evolutionary paradigm for the study of human aggression. In: Nettleship M.A., Givens R.D. & Nettleship A. (Eds.) War, Its Causes and Correlates. The Hague: Mouton, pp.359-87.
Corning, PA. (1983) The Synergism Hypothesis: A Theory of Progressive Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Corning, P.A. (2001) Synergy Goes to War: An Evolutionary Theory of Collective Violence. Paper prepared for the annual meeting of APLS, Charleston SC, Oct. 18-21.
Corning, P.A. & C.H. Corning (1972) Toward a General Theory of Violent Aggression. Soc. Sci. Info., 11, 3/4, pp. 7-35.