Peter Corning:
"Nature's Magic" (Cambridge Univ Press, 2003)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
I have bad memories linked to the word "synergy" when i worked in the corporate world: it meant absolutely nothing. It was just an excuse to do whatever an executive wanted to do.

Corning's strategy is not too different. He starts the book carefully avoiding any formal definition of synergy. He enumerates cases of synergy, and they are so wildly different that the only thing they have in common is that they are phenomena of this world. Hence, synergy, as he keeps repeating, is defined by him as "the pervasive property of this world" (my summary of his enumerative definition). He then proceeds to write a book to prove that "the pervasive property of this world" is pervasive in this world...

Needless to say, i was not impressed by the first four chapters that set the foundations for the book.

The commonly accepted definition of synergy is "The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects." This is vague enough. Can you think of anything that is not greater than the sum of its parts? If you put three stones anywhere on the ground, they will form a triangle, which is greater than the sum of its parts. If you scramble your clothes on a bed, you have created a heap of clothes that is more than the sum of its parts (it could even be considered art by some art gallery). Just naming something makes it bigger than its parts. Corning thinks that sequential order constitutes evidence of synergy: since we don't have a working definition of synergy, we just have to assume that sequential order (e.g., the fact that the word "unite" is formed by five letters in that order and not in another order) is part of the definition of synergy... but then why not just call it "sequential ordering"? He thinks that we cannot explain how an automobile works: "it is inexplicable in terms of the laws of Physics" (go tell the engineers at Toyota or General Motors), probably because he thinks that the laws of Physics cannot contain instructions about the arrangement of parts to build the system (something that every junior engineer routinely does in every engineering lab of the planet). But, again, it's all a matter of definitions.

If Corning thinks that a random heap of clothes constitutes a case of synergy, then of course we all believe his statement that "synergy was present at the big bang" or that "the universe can be portrayed as a vast structure of synergies". When and where wasn't it present?

Can Corning please give us an example of a system that is NOT a case of synergy? If no system exists that is not synergetic, then why make a big deal about this or that case? It's like making a big deal of existing. Synergy (as non-defined by Corning) is simply the effect of the laws of nature that create systems out of elementary particles, a perfectly reductionist paradigm. The more vague the definition of synergy, the easier to explain it without any need for new physics or philosophy: it is just what Science has always studied, with impeccable credentials (we do build bridges and skyscrapers and airplanes and spacecrafts, and the vast majority of them do work, something that Corning fails to mention in his anti-reductionist paragraphs).

As an example of synergy he even mentions the fact that you are more likely to die of bee poison if 100 bees sting you than if only one stings you. Really? Who would have guessed...

Another example of synergy would be the "threshold effects" (Per Bak's "criticality" for those who studied Physics): there's a point at which systems collapse into something else (Bak's favorite example is the pile of sand that collapses suddenly when you add one more grain of sand to the billions already there). This has to do with phase transitions, that Physicists have studied and explained in detail. However, Corning calls these "unpredictable disordered processes". They are not unpredictable at all, in fact there are very mathematical laws that predict the precise temperature when water turns into ice or a material becomes a superconductor. And almost every process is disordered if you look close enough. Another example that should explain what Corning means by "synergy" is the laser: Corning points out that the laser does things that individual photons can't do. Right, but that's true of everything: a knife cuts paper but particles of iron would not do that. You build solid objects in particular shapes (ordering of their parts) so that they will be useful for some task. A house is made of bricks, pipes, wires, etc, and eventually it becomes a nice place to live in, and of course neither the individual brick nor the individual pipe not the individual wire is a nice place to live in. Any construction worker could have told you that. Even "division of labor" is an example of synergy as defined by Corning: great, but what's special about it? It's a perfectly reductionist approach to making a factory more efficient. Again: is there something in nature or in society or in the entire universe that is not a synergy? If not, then "synergy" is equivalent to "existence", and it's not clear why one phenomenon would be more relevant than another one.

He does mention (when he talks about gestalt, which is lumped with all the other cases of "synergy" when it is indeed a singularly different phenomenon) that "many other forms of synergy are dependent on how the parts are physically ordered". Again, this is something that every construction worker, and even every child who has ever played with Lego, already knew, let alone all the scientists and engineers who designed all sorts of artifacts (all of which work because their parts have been assembled in the proper order!) Eventually we get a sort of definition when Corning admits that "emergence" could be used as a synonym for "synergy". So it sounds like his study is about emergent properties.

He pays a huge price for not providing a working definition of "synergy" when he finally introduces systems such as the immune system of the brain. Since he just claimed that the laws of Physics cannot explain how an automobile works (of course they can), the reader will think that the problem with the immune system and the brain is the same: Corning didn't study Physics, that's all. Instead those are systems that are indeed different from an automobile: there is no engineer that designed them, and writing the equations that regulate them would take the lifetimes of many many engineers, and possibly result in only a crude approximation. Unlike the car, that is assembled in a human factory after having been designed in every minuscule detail by human engineers based on very accurate and reliable physical laws, the immune system has not been designed by any human engineer and was not manufactured in a human factory (note the word "human" in front of both "engineer" and "factory": i have no idea of what technique an alien civilization would use to build its artifacts); and is not a static artifact. By lumping automobiles and brains together, Corning's theory has very weak foundations. It's like someone lumping tomatoes and lightning together to study electricity.

There is an entire chapter devoted to recapitulating the history of the universe as modern Physics views it (repeat: that is the history of the universe that has been logically derived via traditional formulas by reductionist Physics, presumably the very Physics that Corning is trying to paint as obsolete). Corning provides a nice summary of the most popular theories on the big bang, the formation of galaxies, etc, all the way to the beginning of life on Earth. However, it is sprinkled with adjectives such as "inexplicable" (when in fact it is "explicable": the story that Corning is summarizing "is" the explanation) and "miracle" ("the eukaryote is a microscopic miracle"); and with a continuous reference to synergy for events and phenomena that have simple physical explanations known to any high-school student (for example that the number of electrons equals the number of protons in the nucleus).

He writes "the synergy principle played a critical role". I looked all over (even in the index) but i found no such "synergy principle" introduced anywhere in the book. Again, it feels like the "synergy principle" is a principle that states "whatever happens happens".

He talks of gravity as another form of synergy. He doesn't seem to be aware that Einstein proposed a theory of gravitation that removes the need for the "attraction" between bodies (Einstein's theory being, incidentally, a very good example of emergence on a very large scale). Thus he claims that fusion is "highly synergistic". And, again, one has no way of determining what is very synergistic, so-so synergistic and little synergistic because no definition has been given to us. He mentions water, fire and many other substances as examples of synergy. Again the question is: is there anything that is NOT an example of synergy? If the answer is "no", then why make a big deal of water, fire, etc and not of chairs and toilets?

His summary of the history of the world is littered with countless facts that Corning lists as evidence of "synergy". The problem is that most of them don't seem to prove anything in particular. It's like proclaiming "Paris is the capital of France" when trying to prove why Napoleon lost: Paris is indeed the capital of France, but what does it have to do with the military adventures of Napoleon? Rhizobia are certainly useful for fixing nitrogen, but then everything else on Earth is useful for something, otherwise the Earth wouldn't be as it is: so why single out only Rhizobia? At the end of this summary Corning claims that the big bang "initiated an ongoing historical process only partly shaped by physical laws": what else shaped it? I guess we also need a definition of "physical law" because the whole story that Corning has just summarized was deducted by physicist from the physical laws that we know. The big bang was not observed, the formation of the galaxies was not observed, nothing of what we think happened has been observed: we deducted it assuming that we have the correct physical laws. There is no scientific hypothesis on the universe that is not based on physical laws.

Chapter 4 is devoted to negative synergy, that Corning presents as a sort of antimatter to synergy (not quite, because it doesn't sound like positive and negative synergy annihilate each other but rather coexist, and actually one can create the other). Negative synergy occurs when "unrelated factors combine to produce unintended and unpredictable effects". His first example is when an accident on the road and some other unpredictable events causes you to be late for an appointment. This example is obviously weak because each of those events would delay you even if they did not combine. A better example is when wet road, alcohol and no seat belts conjured to kill a driver: perhaps none of those factors would have caused the death, but all of them combined did. Anyway, the book never really goes back to negative synergy, so we don't really get to know its role in the grand scheme of things.

And then, out of the blue, at the beginning of the fifth chapter, we do get the definition of synergy that has been missing so far: "irreducible cooperative effects of all kinds". I think it slipped. Now we can analyze if the phenomena that Corning lists as examples of "synergy" are irreducible or not. The vast majority are reducible. In fact, my opinion is that all phenomena are reducible as long as we have enough computing power. Long ago Physics recognized that some phenomena (for example those related to gases) were not reducible because the number of equations needed to represent the status of the system was too great. Hence scientists often deal with statistical quantities (temperature being probably the most famous) that describe the "average" state of the system as a whole instead of describing the state of each and every single part. However, that's not a limitation of the scientific method: it's a limitation of the human brain. That said, it might be worthwhile to analyze many problems "as if" they were irreducible (just like Thermodynamics examines the behavior of gases "as if" such behavior was irreducible to the behavior of the particles). Using a statistical method is a convenience, not an eternal imperative.

He calls his theory "Holistic Darwinism" (and don't start yawning just because you read the new-age term "holistic"), but it is basically yet another take on "self-organizing systems", just less scientific because he applies it to Evolutionary Biology, a field in which scientists are a bit less demanding in terms of mathematical equations.

You also judge a book by its credentials, and the scholars that are referenced tend to be a good measure of its credentials. Timothy Ferris is a great (and best-selling) writer, but hardly the "distinguished physicist" that Corning makes him to be (on the other hand, i can think of hundreds of distinguished physicists whom Corning does not even mention in the whole book). Of course, one can't help suspecting that Corning mentions Ferris' book (a book of popular science) because he is not familiar with most of the books on modern Physics.

Chapter 5 is appropriately devoted to proving the importance of cooperation in nature. That is a very popular subject in his age and plenty has been written about "altruism" since landmark studies such as William Hamilton's (1964). My humble book of two years ago (The Nature of Consciousness) devotes an entire chapter to altruism, so you can read my survey there. Here we get another definition of synergy: "cooperative relationships of various kinds". It would be nice to know what "kinds" qualify and what kinds do not qualify. From the examples that he provides, it sounds like all kinds qualify.

The first five chapters have therefore presented a vast amount of knowledge as referring to the topic of synergy, and one can identify at least four definitions of synergy: sequential ordering of parts, emergent properties of a system, self-organizing systems, cooperation. It might well be that they are all the same thing. It might well be that all processes in the universe qualify as synergetic.

The sixth chapter is where Corning's book gets more interesting. He contrasts his theory of "Neo-Lamarckian Selection" (apparently a synonym of "Holistic Darwinism") with the theory of "gene selectionism": gene selectionism assumes that natural selection operates on genes, whereas Corning believes that selection operates on wholes. Corning believes that "synergy" (cooperation) plays a role in producing "variation", the phenomenon that makes natural selection possible (otherwise all individuals would be identical and would probably die very quickly as soon as the environment changes). Corning argues that traditional Darwinism cannot explain complexity (on large scales) precisely because its emphasis is on competition and not cooperation. Genetic mutations per se would not be enough to explain the complexity we find in nature. Corning instead focuses on the behavior of living beings, that are capable of learning (the "Baldwin effect") and are capable of modifying the environment (as Waddington and Mayr pointed out). Living beings are more than mere "vehicles" for genes to live forever, as gene selectionism claims. Living beings actively participate in determining their own evolutionary future by 1. continuously reshaping the environment that will "select" their evolution (the use of tools is pervasive among living beings) and 2. learning behavior that is not in their genes and passing it on to the next generation (learning is also pervasive among living beings).

Corning's neo-Lamarckism builds on the ideas of Baldwin, Waddington and Mayr that living systems shape the very environment that drives their evolution. He points out that frequently the change caused by living systems to the environment is highly significant for their survival, and therefore cannot be neglected. Corning explains that it is misleading to think of this process as a mere "feedback": synergy is more than just a feedback loop. He goes as far as to claim that humans, the most active living systems, have "invented themselves" by creating the environment that they wanted.

Corning thinks that two quantities need to be added to Monod's "chance" and "necessity": teleonomy and selection (selection was implied in Monod's theory although not in the title of his book). Teleonomy is a property that living systems exhibit: their structure and function has a purpose and is directed towards a goal. This property is a consequence of the living system's evolutionary history. Teleonomy is coded in the genome of the living system. The genotype determines the behavior of the phenotype, but the phenotype in turn helps create the selection pressures that will determine the evolution of the genotype. Teleonomy has an impact on evolution because it is a form of downward causation: the behavior of the whole creates the selection pressures that cause the evolution of its "parts" (all the way down to the genes themselves).

Corning emphasizes "synergistic selection", which is Darwinian selection at the level of complex systems: the differential survival of wholes that leads to the emergence of higher level wholes whose purposes transcends the purposes of their constituent parts. These wholes in turn become agents of selection for both themsevels and others (Corning's "Neo-Lamarckian Selection"). Corning's "Neo-Lamarckian Selection" is not in opposition to Darwinian selection but complements it.

Corning objects to EO Wilson's claim that reductionist science will eventually explain everything (including biology and history) via simple universal laws. Corning, however, does not provide any proof or even convincing argument against this claim, other than pointing to the fact that today's reductionist science can't do that (it's like a Greek claiming that science will never be able to explain what causes lightning). Corning sees holism and reductionism coexist side by side.

Corning's main points are that

  1. Nature is organized in a hierarchy of hierarchies. At each level of a hierarchy different "synergies" are at work that create the upper level.
  2. Behavior shapes evolution. In particular, humans adopted "group-based behavioral strategies", i.e. social organization. He emphasizes the importance of tools to shape our behavior, in particular a dietary shift from vegetables to meat. That, in his opinion, caused subsequent anatomical developments of the hominids. Climate change caused behavioral changes, and they caused anatomical changes. Language is also a by-product of behavioral changes that, in turn, fostered anatomical changes.
  3. The importance of the transfer of culture from one generation to the next one. Quote: "The group as a whole became a transgenerational repository of adaptive information". Culture, in turn, helped create novel forms of synergy, or, in other words, higher levels in the hierarchy. We are still creating new forms of synergies. (He does not speculate on what is happening in modern society, as the role of parents is increasingly taken up by society's "educational system").
  4. The net result of all of this for humans is that humans "invented inventiveness", and in particular they invented themselves as they are today with their civilizations, societies, etc
  5. There was no accidental mega-mutation of the human body that explains why ancient hominids evolved into modern humans.
  6. Nature's creativity lies in the combination of parts to create wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.
  7. The universe is still inventing itself and we are not just spectators but co-protagonists.

Just like Robert Wright's "nonzero sum game", Corning's theory is just a theory that cooperation is important in human evolution (See my review of Robert Wright's book). The difference is that Wright believes in an inevitable destiny towards greater complexity and progress driven by non-zero sumness, i.e. by a fundamental law, whereas Corning believes that we are agents of our own future. Corning points out that for every giant step ahead the human race has stumbled into an equally impressive step backwards. So the direction is not that clear. Hence the future cannot be predicted.


I don't think that Cromwell "terminated the Commonwealth" in 1653 (page 89): it was terminated when the monarchy was reinstated. I don't think that Western Union's famous memo (page 305) was about the telephone but about the radio (it read "the wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value"). And i think that Baldwin's first name was James Mark and not H Mark. But these are details.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi