Book Summary: “Holistic Darwinism” by Peter A. Corning


Title: Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution
Author: Peter A. Corning
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Corning argues that synergy – the benefits of combining simpler objects together to form more complex objects that have different characteristics than their constituents parts – is a key driving force in evolution.

My Comments

This book is very heavy on theory, so it will probably not be of interest to most readers. His later book “Nature’s Magic” is a much more approachable application of this theory.

Key Take-aways

  • Biological theories are increasingly shifting away from the “selfish gene” metaphor of Richard Dawkins to one that is more focused on the benefits of higher-level cooperation.
  • These benefits causes complexity to emerge out of simplicity.
  • This trend towards complexity applies to biological evolution of plants and animals, as well as cultural evolution of human societies.
  • Bioeconomics (the relative costs and benefits of cooperation in promoting survival and reproduction) helps us to understand when cooperation takes place.

Important Quotes from Book

A major paradigm shift is currently underway in evolutionary theory. Neo-Darwinism—the reductionist, mechanistic, gene-centered approach to evolution epitomized by the selfish gene metaphor of Richard Dawkins—has come under assault from various quarters.

The crux of the debate, however, has to do with the evolution of complexity. An individualistic, gene-centered theory seems insufficient to account for the evolution of more complex, multileveled biological systems over time. It is increasingly evident that the selfish gene metaphor is inadequate.

A more appropriate metaphor is the cooperative gene. Thus, a major challenge for evolutionary theory is to develop a better understanding of cooperation and complexity in the natural world.

First and foremost, Holistic Darwinism views evolution as a dynamic, multilevel process in which there is both “upward causation” (from the genes to the phenotype and higher levels of organization) and “downward causation” (phenotypic influences on differential survival and reproduction), and even “horizontal causation” (between organisms).

A second major feature of Holistic Darwinism is that it serves as an umbrella for a broad theory of cooperation and complexity in nature.

The Synergism Hypothesis… , in brief, is that synergy—a vaguely familiar term to many of us—has been a wellspring of creativity in the natural world and has played a key role in the evolution of cooperation and complexity at all levels of living systems. This theory asserts that synergy is more than a class of interesting and ubiquitous effects in nature. It has also been a major causal agency in evolution; it represents a unifying explanation for complexity at all levels of living systems.

Moreover, this theory is fully consistent with Darwin’s theory… the Synergism Hypothesis represents, in essence, an economic (or, more precisely, bioeconomic) theory of complexity.

A third major feature of Holistic Darwinism is that it fully acknowledges the “teleonomy” (purposiveness) of living systems and incorporates this important aspect of the natural world into the causal dynamics of the evolutionary process itself. This pertains especially to behavior.

A fourth feature of Holistic Darwinism is that it also encompasses the phenomena associated with emergence.

Another important aspect of Holistic Darwinism is that it also applies to human evolution and to the evolution of human cultures and their political systems. In fact, synergy played a key causal role in the evolution of humankind, and so did cybernetic (political) processes—decision making, social communications, social control, and feedback. Nor are such processes unique to our species.

Finally, Holistic Darwinism embraces the recently revitalized “superorganism” concept.

In a nutshell, the fundamental linkage between biology and economics derives from the fact that humans share with all other living species the fundamental problems of survival and reproduction.

This bedrock challenge is multifaceted, ongoing, and inescapable; it can never be permanently solved. Indeed, whether we are aware of it or not, the overwhelming majority of our activities as a species are devoted to various aspects of the survival problem (either directly or indirectly). A human society represents, quintessentially, a “collective survival enterprise.”

Bioeconomics redefines the nature and purpose of a society, and an economy. The “ground-zero premise” (so to speak) of the life sciences is that survival and reproduction represent the basic problem for all living organisms, and this bedrock challenge applies also to human societies.

Synergy—as we shall see—is an energizer, a creative wellspring underlying the evolution of complexity, in nature and human societies alike. It constitutes the theoretical core of the new paradigm that I call Holistic Darwinism.

The dominant paradigm in the social sciences for the better part of the past century utilized as its core premise the assumption that human behavior and cultural processes are determined (caused) by the sociocultural environment, and that biological influences are largely irrelevant.

Among the many consequences of this dogmatism was a wall of prejudice against any purported facts that conflicted with socioeconomic and cultural explanations. Accordingly, Edward O. Wilson’s paradigm- shattering textbook, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), was greeted by many mainstream social scientists with great hostility. This is not surprising; Wilson threatened their core assumptions and challenged the hegemony of their explanatory apparatus.

Over much of the past twenty-five years, evolutionary theory has been dominated by the “selfish gene” (or Neo- Darwinian) paradigm, so named after biologist Richard Dawkins’s famous 1976 book by that title. The selfish gene metaphor epitomizes a reductionist perspective in which atomistic individual competition is viewed as the predominant, if not exclusive, shaping force in evolution. In this view, cooperative phenomena are not only very limited in scope but are reducible to gene self-interest; higher-level cooperative relationships are even considered by some theorists to be epiphenomena that are not causally important in their own right.

Perhaps the most significant sign that a favorable tide now exists for the synergy concept is the publication of two books coauthored by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry on the evolution of complexity, The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995) and The Origins of Life (1999), which feature the role of synergy at various levels of biological organization.

Complexity is also recognized by many theorists these days to be a distinct emergent phenomenon that requires higher-level explanations. In fact, there is a rapidly growing literature in complexity theory.

Finally, there are currently several convergent theoretical developments that focus in various ways on synergistic phenomena, even though they may not employ the term synergy explicitly. These developments include, among others, (1) network theory and network dynamics (2) niche construction theory (3) emergence theory (4) evolutionary developmental systems theory or evo-devo (5) systems biology and(6) gene-culture co-evolution

“Holistic Darwinism” is a candidate name for a post–Neo- Darwinian evolutionary paradigm. When two functionally linked genes are selected together, or when two symbionts (say a ruminant and its gut bacteria) are jointly favored, or when a group of communally nesting female wasps reproduce in greater abundance, the unit of differential survival and reproduction (in functional terms) is the whole—the combined (synergistic) effects produced by the cooperating parts. Holistic Darwinism is not a different theory; it involves a different perspective on the evolutionary process.

Holistic Darwinism is distinctive in that it is concerned especially with the bioeconomics— the functional costs and benefits—of cooperative phenomena of all kinds. It does not contradict the Neo-Darwinian assumption of gene self-interest but highlights the paradoxical interdependence of genes and their “vessels.” Indeed, it is argued that the units of replication (genes, genomes, gene pools) and their genetic relationships are less important as determinants of cooperative phenomena than are the functional properties and survival consequences of cooperation.

A key point about cooperation as a functional concept is that it is found at every level of living systems. Beginning with the very origins of life, it is a common denominator in all of the various formal hypotheses about the earliest steps in the evolutionary process (reviewed in Corning 1996a). All share the common assumption that cooperative interactions among various component parts played a central role in catalyzing living systems.

The social interactions that occur in nature among members of the same species may be perturbed by “free riders,” defectors, exploiters, conspecific parasites, and so on, yet the fact remains that within-species cooperative behaviors are fairly common and encompass a broad array of survival-related functions, including (1) hunting and foraging collaboratively, which may serve to increase capture efficiency, the size of the prey that can be pursued, or the likelihood of finding food patches; (2) joint detection and avoidance of, and defense against, predators, using behaviors that range from mobbing and other kinds of coordinated attacks to flocking, herding, communal nesting, and synchronized reproduction; (3) shared protection of jointly acquired food caches, notably among many insects and some birds; (4) cooperative movement and migration, including the use of formations that increase aerodynamic or hydrodynamic efficiency, reduce individual energy costs, and/or facilitate navigation; (5) cooperation in reproduction, which can include joint nest building, joint feeding, and joint protection of the young; and (6) shared environmental conditioning.

In essence, there is a recognition that natural selection operates at various levels of biological organization—from genes to ecosystems—often simultaneously.

In addition, the Synergism Hypothesis posits, in essence, that it was the bioeconomic payoffs (the synergies) associated with various forms of social cooperation that produced—in combination—the ultimate directional trend over a period of several million years, from the earliest bipedal hominids to modern Homo sapiens. That is, the synergies produced by various collaborative behavioral innovations provided proximate rewards or reinforcements (as the behaviorists would say) that were substantial enough to create a behavioral “pacemaker…  In other words, we invented ourselves (in effect) in response to various ecological pressures and opportunities.

Synergy—here defined broadly as the combined (interdependent) effects produced by two or more parts, elements, or individuals—is a ubiquitous phenomenon in nature and human societies alike. Although it plays a prominent part in most, if not all, of the scientific disciplines, its importance is not widely appreciated because it travels under many different aliases. (A number of examples are provided to illustrate.) At the very least, the term synergy could be utilized as a pan-disciplinary lingua franca for the functional effects produced by cooperative phenomena of various kinds; a terminological shift would underscore the fact that the differently named phenomena studied by various disciplines are in fact variations on a common theme in the natural world. More important, synergistic effects of various kinds have also played a major causal role in the evolutionary process; in particular, synergistic effects have provided the underlying functional basis for the evolution of complex systems, in nature and human societies alike.

To put it baldly, functional synergy is the ultimate cause of cooperation (and complexity) in living systems, not the other way around. Human societies are based on synergy—cooperative effects that are not otherwise attainable. And the public interest or common good is not about the pursuit of happiness, or the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” It is first and foremost concerned with meeting the basic survival and reproductive needs of the population as a whole.

If you would like to learn more about evolution in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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