Book Summary: “Nature’s Magic” by Peter Corning

Nature's Magic

Title: Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind
Author: Peter Corning
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Corning makes that claim that synergy is the key causal force in the evolution in physics, chemistry, biology and human history.

Key Take-aways

  • Synergy means that the whole is different from (and usually an improvement over) the sum of the parts.
  • Synergy is the key causal force in the evolution in physics, chemistry, biology and human history.
  • Evolution is driven as much by cooperation as by competition.
  • When multiple parts are put together, that combination persists to the extent to which the costs outweigh the benefits (i.e. synergy is created). A random grouping of parts will not survive as no benefits are achieved by keeping them together.
  • The costs and benefits of combining those parts vary from time-to-time and from place-to-place, so nothing is inevitable. The combination will only persist as long as the benefits outweigh the costs.
  • Genetic mutation is not the sole cause of evolution. Animals make conscious choices that lead to changes of behavior. If these behaviors give an advantage to survival and reproduction, the behavior will persist.
  • History is key to understanding how something works.

Important Quotes from Book

The thesis, in brief, is that synergy – a vaguely familiar term to many of us – is actually one of the great governing principles of the natural world. It has been a wellspring of creativity in the evolution of the universe, and it has greatly influenced the overall trajectory of life on Earth. It has played a decisive role in the emergence of humankind. It is vital to the workings of every modern society. And it is no exaggeration to say that our ultimate fate depends upon it.

The Synergism Hypothesis (as I call it) is a serious scientific theory that is fully consistent with Darwin’s theory, and with the canons of the physical, biological, and social sciences, not to mention the new science of complexity. The theory, in a nutshell, is that synergy is not only a ubiquitous effect in nature; it has also played a key causal role in the evolutionary process.

How do I define synergy? Very broadly, the term refers to the combined, or cooperative, effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts, or individuals in a given context – effects that are not otherwise possible.

I will argue that synergy ranks up there with such heavyweight concepts as gravity, energy, entropy, and information as one of the keys to understanding how the world works and how we got here – not to mention where we are going. Moreover, synergy has been a creative dynamo and a prolific source of innovation in evolution, as we shall see.

The universe can be portrayed as a vast structure of synergies, a many-leveled edifice 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 level of organization.

I will 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 effects, a critical mass, coevolution, interactions, threshold effects, even non-zerosumness).

I call this new paradigm “Holistic Darwinism,” and I side with the growing number of contemporary biologists who hold that evolution must be viewed as a multileveled process in which selfish genes are most often subordinated to the dictates of “selfish genomes” – synergistic systems. Outlaw genes are the exception rather than the rule.

However, I will propose a radically different scenario for human evolution. I will develop the theory that, in effect, we invented ourselves through a process that I have dubbed “Neo-Lamarckian Selection.” We are uniquely the “inventive ape.” Moreover, the many new kinds of synergy that our ancestors invented over the course of perhaps 6 million years played a starring role; we are also, quintessentially, the “synergistic ape.” Finally, the Synergism Hypothesis also applies to the explosive rise of complex human societies during the past few thousand years (as described in Chapter 8). Indeed, the mostly unrecognized common denominator in every one of the recent game theory models (so-called) of cultural evolution is synergy. It is synergy that has been responsible for the evolution of cooperation in nature and humankind, not the other way around.

One of the most important implications of this worldview, in fact, is developed in the penultimate chapter, where it is argued that the enduring search for some hidden “law” of history – some deterministic force or mechanism – that will allow us to predict the future course of the “human career” … is fundamentally flawed.

What is required instead, I will argue, is a “science of history.”

Human technology is also rife with synergy – needless to say.

Consider also a commonplace consumer product like an automobile… It represents an assemblage of (depending on the car and how you count) some 15,000–20,000 precisely designed and manufactured parts, comprising some 60 different materials. It also embodies many different technologies, from weaving to glassmaking, metallurgy, ceramics, hydraulics, rubber-vulcanizing, electricity, paints, plastics, and the latest in electronics. And it also incorporates literally thousands of different human inventions: threaded screws, articulated gears, springs, hinges, clamps, cotter pins, bolts, chains, filters, locks, lock washers, Velcro fasteners, ball bearings, fans, pumps, valves, storage batteries, electric motors, and, of course, internal combustion engines.

Furthermore, the synergy produced by these self-propelled machines will occur only if all, or almost all, of the parts work together harmoniously… In fact, one test for the presence of synergy is that the “whole” may not work if a major part is removed or breaks down – a wheel, the alternator, the ignition key, or the driver for that matter.

An automobile also represents something truly novel in the history of life on Earth, if not in the universe. It is inexplicable in terms of the laws of physics, or the dynamical attractors of chaos theory, or the quarks of quantum theory, or even the laws of thermodynamics – although each of these disciplines has something useful to say about automobiles and how they work. Equally important, you cannot “explain” an automobile simply by listing all of its parts. Nor can you throw all of those parts into a disorganized heap and still get the synergy. It takes a very particular arrangement of the parts to make the magic happen.

We also tend to forget that the synergy produced by an automobile depends on an enormous number of supporting industries and a vast human enterprise involving literally millions of workers, from the manufacturers of oil drilling bits to the producers of electronic sensors and our 500,000 auto mechanics. An automobile is a collective miracle.

Human organizations also regularly produce synergistic effects.

Synergy is also vital to the workings of the human body, in a myriad of ways.

Synergistic effects are ubiquitous. They are of central importance to such fundamental sciences as physics, chemistry, and biology. They are deeply embedded in the phenomena studied by economists, psychologists, and sociologists. They are the absorbing preoccupation – and stock-in-trade – of engineers, architects, business entrepreneurs, clothing designers, writers, and artists.

Synergistic effects need not be “more” than what the parts can produce alone, only different.

All of nature and every complex human society – indeed, every one of us – represents a multi-leveled structure of synergistic effects. We are surrounded by it. It’s inescapable. Let’s briefly survey a few of the many different kinds of synergy.

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. And when it comes to competition between groups, the odds are that the bigger unit will prevail.

Synergies of scale can be greatly accelerated with multiplicative processes (exponential growth).

Threshold Effects:

These are special cases of a synergy of scale; I call 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.”

Nature is laced with such threshold effects. Indeed, natural selection is often produced by the aggregate effects of a population, not individual characteristics alone. For example, many species respond to population increases beyond a critical level with various adaptive responses – emigration, reduced fertility, inhibited development, even infanticide and cannibalism.

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.

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.

Functional Complementarities:

Many other forms of synergy depend on different properties or capabilities that join forces to give the combination new functional characteristics. Velcro fasteners are one example. Their remarkable gripping ability depends on the interaction between the tiny hooks and loops on the two opposing strips. Another example is the tacit partnership between computer hardware and software.

Emergent Phenomena:

Today, unfortunately, the term emergence is used in a bewildering variety of ways, often as a synonym for synergy. However, I side with the early theorists; 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.

All forms of emergent phenomena involve synergy, but there are many forms of synergy that do not have emergent properties, by any reasonable definition. Accordingly, the term should be confined to organized “wholes” composed of functionally distinct “parts” that produce irreducible combined effects – like the human mind.

Augmentation or Facilitation:

This involves combined, synergistic effects that enhance a dynamic process, or in some cases make it possible. One example is catalysts.

Joint Environmental Conditioning:

Through joint action individual organisms can often achieve significant economies, or efficiencies that would not otherwise be possible. One of my favorite examples is the emperor penguin.

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.

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 division/combination of labor is also widespread in nature.

Animal-Tool Symbiosis:

The many functional relationships that exist in nature between organisms and various “tools” amount to a form of symbiosis.

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. The benefits can range from more efficient foraging efforts to life itself.

Information sharing in nature often involves imitation, or undirected “cultural” transmission.

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.

One of the most important properties of nature has to do with the fact that, very often, synergy is not simply an object, or a “thing,” 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. Indeed, we are often witnesses to, or participants in, one of those historically rooted moments when some new synergy emerges – when things come together for the first time that had been separate.

In sum, synergy is the very stuff of history. We must look upon the historical process not as the potentially predictable working out of still-hidden laws but as an inescapably creative process, full of challenges and surprises. Historical contingencies for better or worse produce many unique combined effects… Furthermore, we must learn to think not in terms of the “prime movers” or principal “causes” of this ongoing saga but in terms of historically determined synergies (positive or negative), whether deliberately organized, or “self-organized,” or fortuitous.


In the new cosmology, the entire universe is viewed as the product of an evolutionary process.

Matter – the basic “stuff” of the universe – would not exist without synergy.

The original “superforce” accompanying the Big Whoosh [Big Bang] differentiated into four distinct kinds of forces – now known as gravity, the strong nuclear binding force, the weak nuclear force (which controls solar energy), and the electromagnetic force associated with massless photons and other forms of radiation… They immediately began to construct the material universe.

All of the more massive particles were radically unstable. Only the two lightest ones, now known as quarks and leptons, survived in large quantities, and these minute fragments of matter became the subatomic bricks that were used to construct our material universe.

Then the synergy began in earnest. Within the first 3-plus minutes after the onset of the Big Whoosh, protons and neutrons began to appear.

Quarks can’t survive independently, but they can (with the help of gluons) survive in threesomes, and together they can produce various interdependent (synergistic) effects. Thus the so-called “up– down–up” combination results in a positively charged proton, while the slightly heavier “down–up–down” arrangement yields an electrically inert neutron.  Without this elemental form of synergy (an example of a functional complementarity), the material universe as we know it would not exist.

Here again, the synergy principle played a critical role. Neutrons by themselves are unstable; they need to pair up with protons in order to survive. But, in so doing, the neutron–proton pairs also acquire joint capabilities that neither particle possesses alone.

It became possible to create stable atoms of matter, thanks to their synergy. This was a turning point in cosmic evolution.

Just as the quark–gluon triads create stable nuclear material and the proton–neutron partnerships underpin the larger, more complex elements, so the proton–electron pairings allow atoms to aggregate and interact in various ways. Indeed, the captive electrons also play an important role, along with the electromagnetic force, in binding atoms of various kinds together. Thus an ordinary atom of helium, say, is really a conglomerate consisting of three “levels” of synergistic effects.

So if the atoms of matter were not electrically neutralized by their electrons, gravity would not be able to overcome the repulsive force of their protons. In other words, the influence of gravity is dependent on the synergy between protons and electrons.

Once the immense clouds of electrically charged hydrogen and helium ions that littered the expanding universe had been converted into vast patchy clouds of stable, electrically neutral atoms, a process of gradual accretion arose which, in time, led to you and me.

[Stellar] “fusion,” and it is highly synergistic. In fact, “stellar nucleosynthesis” (as the physicists term it) is the magical means by which all of the other 89 naturally occurring elements in the universe were fabricated.

But nucleosynthesis is really a form of sorcery on a grand scale – an alchemist’s dream come true. Under the right conditions, even gold is fabricated from the quarks and leptons that are the ultimate raw material of the universe. Different combinations of the same atomic building blocks produce substances with very different physical and chemical properties. Chemistry is a bottomless well of creativity in nature and a prodigious source of synergy.

Polymers, covalent bonds, ionic bond, oxidation are all examples of synergy.

An essential prerequisite for the appearance of life on Earth, or anywhere else in the universe, was a fortuitous and highly synergistic combination of preconditions that occurred at a very specific time and place (or places) in the cosmic epic. The list of these preconditions is awesome.

There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other “necessary but not sufficient” preconditions for the evolution of life on Earth, which is why the “anthropic principle” evokes reactions ranging from scientific wonder to religious awe.

The biosphere that we inhabit is a multileveled high-rise structure that has been laboriously constructed, step by step (though also in fits and starts), over the course of the past 3.5 billion years or so.

The properties and functions of DNA are highly synergistic.

Without its synergy-producing RNA helpers, DNA would be impotent…  “the development of three distinct functions of RNA was probably the molecular key to the origin of life.”

Living systems are also dependent on the synergy produced by enzymes – the organic catalysts that control virtually all biochemical processes… Without enzymes, life would be much slower than molasses, as the old saying goes. In fact, it might not be able to go forward at all.

Another important form of synergy can be found in the reproductive process itself. Biological reproduction involves a complex, frequently multistage fabrication effort in which many genes participate cooperatively (a combination of labor).

Much evolutionary innovation and “progress” can be credited to singlecelled bacteria. .. bacteria invented many of the most important biochemical and biomechanical processes in living systems, including photosynthesis, nitrogen fixing, glycolysis, cellular damage repair, mobility, and a gene-sharing conjugal process analogous to sex. Moreover, complex organisms remain dependent on the services provided by bacteria – either directly as internal “endosymbionts” (as they are called) or indirectly as important players in virtually every ecosystem.

Bacteria also pioneered in exploiting the synergy principle – utilizing cooperative solutions to solve the problems of earning a living in an often hostile environment. They invented communal living, multicellular organization, even the division of labor.

Bacteria also invented positive symbiosis – mutually beneficial partnerships with other types of living organisms. Indeed, symbiosis represents a new “level” of organization in nature.

The emergence of the “eukaryotes” – complex single-celled organisms with a segregated nucleus and an array of internal “organelles” (small, organ-like structures) – is unquestionably one of the major turning points in evolution. What sets the eukaryotes apart is that they have been able to fully exploit the synergistic potential of the division/combination of labor at the cellular level. This, in turn, provided a prerequisite for yet another new level of synergy in evolution – multicellular organisms.

So the synergistic combination of glycolysis and “respiration” (the technical term for what the mitochondria do) gives the eukaryotes new capabilities for growth (some are 10,000 times larger than bacteria) and various “technological improvements” that would otherwise be impossible.

But most significant of all, their larger size and more sophisticated biotechnology allows the eukaryotes to become specialists in an even larger, multicellular combination of labor (namely us), a capability that the prokaryotes lack. The obvious analogy in human societies is the development of energy technologies based on fossil fuels (coal and oil),

Though bacteria were the first to discover the enormous potential for synergy in a division/combination of labor, multicellular organisms have elevated its use to a whole new level.

The awesome power of a combination of labor and a synergy of scale together can best be seen, perhaps, in the progressive evolution of a key biotechnology – photosynthesis.

It is still legitimate to speak of “engineering improvements” that gave living systems new capabilities and new powers for growth and diversification. In this light, the energy-capturing technologies developed by humans are not sui generis but are part of a broader, “progressive” evolutionary trend that, in turn, has undergirded many other forms of evolutionary “progress.”

If ideas come to the prepared mind, as the saying goes, evolution comes to the prepared organism in a suitable environment. Nature does not make leaps, but it does cross thresholds and achieve potent new forms of synergy.

Still another level was added … with the development of social organization among multicellular organisms. In effect, the division/ combination of labor and various opportunities for synergies of scale were elevated to a new level; macroscopic synergies became possible that were beyond the capabilities of microscopic organisms, even enmasse.

Perhaps the most stunning example of ecological interdependency can be found in reef corals.

The synergies found in local ecosystems can also be seen, in a more diffuse but equally important way, in the global ecosystem – the biosphere.

In the truest sense synergy is “the meaning of evolution.”

Synergy is neither intrinsically good nor bad. To borrow a phrase, synergy happens, and our attitude toward it depends on our values, and our interests.

Though we are loathe to acknowledge it, the paradox of dependency is one of the central features of any modern society.

In fact, nature often resembles a zero-sum game, with synergy as the trump card.

Natural selection is often portrayed by evolutionists as the chief “mechanism” of innovation in nature. But this is inaccurate. Natural selection is more like an editor than a sculptor; it “chooses” among the options that are generated for “testing” in a given environment. And synergy is the source of many of these options; it’s an engine of evolutionary innovation.

One must focus on the interactions that occur within an organism and between the organism and its environment(s), inclusive of other organisms. Natural selection as a causal agency refers to the functional consequences produced by adaptively significant changes in a given organism–environment relationship. In other words, natural selection is a consequence of the bioeconomic “payoffs.”

The Synergism Hypothesis represents an extension of this line of reasoning. I call it “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.

The “mechanism” (as it were) underlying the evolution of complex systems is none other than the combined functional effects that these systems produce. It is the synergies that are the proximate causes of natural selection, or “synergistic selection.” Synergistic effects represent an independent source of the “variations” which may be “acted upon” by natural selection.

In fact, this paradigm is very similar to the way economists tell us that markets work in human societies. When a new “widget” is developed, its ultimate fate – its survival and reproductive success, so to speak – is ultimately determined by how well it succeeds in the marketplace. If the widget sells well, the “supply” is likely to increase, or so economic theory tells us. If not, the widget will soon go extinct.

Moreover, the synergies are always historically contingent and situation-specific. They are not the predictable product of a prime mover, or the inexorable outcome of any self-organizing fractal dynamic, much less the working out of some deterministic “law” of evolution. History matters – a lot.

Contrary to the narrow, Neo-Darwinian dogma, evolution is not just about competition between genes. Or even about helping your relatives. It’s also about win–win cooperation, and about competition via cooperation. Most important of all, though, it’s about the costs and benefits of competition and/or cooperation – and the costs and benefits of complexity.

These synergies are often quantifiable, and in nature they are related more or less directly to the “bottom line” – survival and reproduction.

If synergy can be found literally everywhere in nature, it is also highly contingent. The reason, in a nutshell, is that it is always subject to economic criteria, namely, the costs and benefits in a given context and how these are allocated among the “parts.” This fundamental economic consideration has important implications.

Accordingly, natural selection functions in a very real sense like a business entrepreneur or a venture capitalist. If the benefits of any “adaptation” do not, on balance, outweigh the costs (if it is not “profitable” in terms of its impact on the survival and reproduction), the system that is responsible for producing the adaptation is very likely to be declared bankrupt.

Despite the traditional assumption that cooperation and competition in nature are “dichotomous” (either–or) choices and are at odds with each other, this is not so; competition and cooperation are commonly intertwined, or juxtaposed. In fact, many forms of cooperation in nature are related to improving one’s competitive ability.

What are the implications of the Synergism Hypothesis? First and foremost, it requires us to break free from a single-minded preoccupation with the role of genes in evolution. It shifts our focus to the functional units and the behaviors that are found in the “economy of nature.” Genetic mutations and other molecular-genetic phenomena are only one of the many sources of innovation in the natural world. Furthermore, the fate of a gene is almost always tied to the effects it produces in combination with other genes. It is the functional costs and benefits, and how these are distributed in terms of both proximate survival needs and ultimate reproductive success (the phenotype), that provides the key to explaining how cooperation and complexity have evolved. And the key to the key is synergy.

The Synergism Hypothesis provides a unifying framework for explaining cooperation and complex organization in biological evolution, and, as we shall see, in human evolution as well. Synergy is the common denominator – the cutting edge of Occam’s razor.

As the economists would say, cooperation and complexity will evolve only when it is “cost-effective.” The philosopher John Locke called it a “social contract,” but it would be more accurate to call it a bioeconomic contract.

Behavioral innovations, however they may occur, are beginning to look like the explanation for some of the outstanding puzzles in the natural world.

An underlying issue, really the linchpin in the theoretical debate concerning the role of behavior in evolution, is the reluctance of biologists – even now that biology is a mature science and is arguably the new “queen” of the sciences – to recognize and incorporate into the core of evolutionary theory the fundamental “purposiveness” and partial-autonomy of living systems.

Teleonomy [that organisms make decisions with purpose] in living systems is today accepted without question. Yet few theorists take the next step and draw out the implications for evolutionary theory. Teleonomy puts living organisms into a unique category. An organism cannot be reduced to the laws of physics, or be derived from those laws, because its properties – inclusive of its structure, its behavior and its historical trajectory – cannot be predicted from those laws. For instance, the laws of physics are silent about the phenomenon of “feedback” – a fundamental (informational) aspect of all living (cybernetic).

Many theorists skirt this issue by treating organisms as mere vessels (rudderless rafts, not motor boats) that are controlled by “exogenous” factors – genes and the environment.

The purposiveness of living organisms is a major causal agency in evolution. Whether or not there is a purposiveness or directionality in the process as a whole is beside the point. That is a question best left to the theologians, and the complexity theorists . From an evolutionary perspective, the natural world displays “the piling up of little purposes,”.

The evolutionary process is in fact shaped by four broad classes of influences – chance, necessity, teleonomy, and selection. Actually five classes. Add synergy.

From an evolutionary perspective, downward causation/supervenience refers especially to purposeful activities at higher levels of organization in living systems (the phenotype) that differentially affect the survival and reproduction of lower-level “parts” (including the genes)… Organisms do not adapt to their environments in a random way as a rule (although specific behaviors, like evasive maneuvers, may have a random aspect). An organism’s time and energy resources are limited and must be used efficiently – economically – or else. Even trial-and-error processes are purposeful. They are shaped by evolved, preexisting search and selection criteria, namely, the adaptive needs of the organism. These behavioral “choices” may then affect the course of natural selection.

Natural selection is not really a mechanism but a way of characterizing the functional consequences for survival and reproduction of significant changes in the relationship between an organism and its environment. It is the functional effects of these changes that matter. Thus, a change in an animal’s “habits” (or its habitat) may have no significant effect, or it could drastically change the odds of its survival. In the process, this new habit/habitat may alter the context for the selection of various structural modifications.

Another way of putting it is that evolution is very often a four-fold process involving (1) genetic variations, (2) phenotypic variations (inclusive of developmental influences and behavioral shifts), (3) ecological (environmental) variations, and (4) differential survival (natural selection). Furthermore, the causal arrows between each of these domains go in both directions.

It is a change in the functional relationship between an organism and its environment that produces natural selection. But the causes of these functional changes can vary widely. They might be the result of a change in behavior. They might be initiated by a mutation, a transposition, or some other change in the genome. Or they might be triggered by a significant change in the environment, including possibly a change in one species that affects other species. Often it involves a complex set of interactions among these agencies.

There are two “common threads” in human evolution, it seems to me. One is that various forms of synergy played a key role in the process. It encompassed many new forms of social cooperation, many new tools/technologies that produced otherwise unattainable synergies, plus more powerful social communications skills, an accretion of culturally transmitted knowledge and an array of anatomical “improvements.”

In other words, there was no “prime mover” or megamutation that suddenly allowed slow-witted hominids to think, and talk, and invent. Instead, an accretion of many small inventions, both cultural and biological, ultimately produced a synergistic new package.

The striking biological differences between humans and chimpanzees, or even humans and the Miocene midgets of 5 million years ago, are the result of a multi-million-year process in which new forms of behavior, and new synergies, were the “pacemakers.” And each major new invention redefined the context of our evolution – both the “selection pressures” and the ecological opportunities and threats.

What all of these and many other technological innovations have in common are: (1) they arise from human needs and human purposes in a specific historical context; (2) they utilize but also modify past cultural and technological attainments; (3) they are interdependent parts of a larger synergistic system; (4) they involve highly purposeful, goal-oriented development processes, as well as many progressive improvements over time; and (5) they are subject to a cultural, Neo-Lamarckian Selection process; the outcomes are ultimately epiphenomena – the combined result of many individual user choices among the available options. Indeed, there is at least a tacit benefit– cost calculation associated with each of these individual decisions, though many other cultural influences may also contribute.

The last point above is critically important. It provides the linkage back to the Synergism Hypothesis and our theory of human evolution. In the final analysis, it is the synergies that determine the “emergence” and diffusion of a new technology; it is the payoffs that “induce” the positive selection of an innovation.

Is there an inner logic to this evolutionary dynamic?… I believe, is yes. The basic, continuing, inescapable problem for the human species, both individually and collectively, is survival and reproduction. This biological probl´ematique, as the French would say, exists whether we are conscious of it, or care about it, or not, and it entails an array of ongoing basic needs. Accordingly, our survival is dependent upon a multifaceted economic enterprise that we tend to take for granted – until something goes wrong. Each human society represents, in essence, a synergistic “package” of adaptations – an array of cultural elements, practices, and technologies that work together within a given environment to meet our basic needs.

In other words, the basic pattern underlying the progressive evolution of large, urbanized, complex societies has been an accretion of positive synergies that in turn benefited the rest of the package; there was a synergy of synergies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s