on September 20, 2003
In Nature's Magic, Peter Corning offers us good news and bad news.
The good news is that chance, necessity, and natural selection aren't the only factors in our evolution. There is also a very real role for <i>purpose</i> (or more specifically, purposiveness). And the role of purposiveness has continued to increase over time. Humans make particularly effective use of it.
The bad news is that our efforts to seek an underlying grand law or force that governs history or evolution may be fundamentally flawed. We may be more responsible for our own survival than we have so far been willing to recognize. The true teleonomy (internal goal-directedness) inherent in Corning's view gives us both a creative and destructive role that is discounted in theories that rely on grand laws of history.
Corning refers to the various quests for an inherent mathematical law of evolution as "Neo-Pythagoreans" after the mystical cult surrounding the legendary mathematician. He counts various well-known contomporary complexity theorists like John Holland and Stuart Kauffman and some physicists among them.
Corning doesn't see the world as necessarily a glorious self-maintaining Gaia, he sees it as a place where living things through their relations and interactions have come to have certain responsibility for their own fate. This becomes an awesome burden once we apply this view to humans, where we take on the role of the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Goethe's (and Disney's) tale where the apprentice knows just enough magic to get himself into serious trouble.
The starting point is Arthur Koestler's insight that "true innovation occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate." Peter Corning takes this insight to heart and explores its remarkable implications, applying this "astonishing capacity" to nature in general.
The essence of the argument is not that nature creates things that cannot be explained or things that cannot be understood, but that no grand laws of nature predict her fruits. In effect, <i>evolution is grounded in nature's astonishing capacity to create beyond what we foresee at every juncture.</i>
Corning's theory of complexity in evolution is based on synergy, by which he simply and elegantly means the myriad effects of combining things where the result doesn't resemble what we'd expect simply by adding them together: the whole is different than the sum of the parts.
Corning's "Holistic Darwinism" is a way of viewing variety and selection in nature which is at once fully consistent with the neo-Darwinian synthesis and also provides theoretical bridges with the cybernetic theory of self-regulating systems and much of the body of scientific literature in social and political sciences. Holistic Darwinism shifts the focus in natural selection from selection itself as a causal force to where the variety comes from.
Nature's Magic describes a very similar role for information in evolution as in John Maynard Smith's work "Major Transitions," and Corning also makes particular use of Maynard Smith's concept of "synergistic selection." If unrelated individuals are often locked into a shared reproductive fate with others, as Corning suggests, then it is reasonable to assume that they will evolve strategies for cooperation, not for "altruism" but in their own interest as part of a "collective survival enterprise."
This shift in perspective in seeing evolution is an ambitious task for a single book, but at least the ground floor of the case is made extremely well here. Nature's Magic persuades us that nature continually yields variety that is neither predictable nor random, but fundamentally <u>economic</u> in its operation. In other words, Holistic Darwinism sees nature as a great marketplace where the functional outcomes of new innovations are continually shaped by the consequences of their costs and benefits.
If combined effects in nature are really different in general than we would expect from simply putting things together, there are some unexpected implications. For one thing, it implies that history matters. If things combine in new ways to produce new features in nature that are not simply an extension of the laws governing the parts, then those new features can potentially have meaningful functional outcomes that play a role in natural selection. This is the core of Corning's argument.
Corning boldly claims that Lamarck was right after all (in a sense). Not that giraffes can create new genes by stretching their necks, but that they can create new ecological niches through their behavior that can later be reinforced by natural selection because of the successful outcomes of those new behaviors. The logic of the "Baldwin Effect" thus figures prominently in Corning's Darwinism and gives an active role to organisms in evolution.
In a nutshell: "synergy" is combined effects all around us in various forms, it plays a causal role in differential reproductive fitness in a highly context-specific way, and it provides a scientific alternative to overreaching grand laws of history.
Instead of theorizing a vague new force or seeking a new law to help explain how natural selection can lead to biological complexity, Peter Corning supplies a fresh way of looking at the whole puzzle of complexity. He does this by reversing the usual logic about cooperation in living things. Rather than living things somehow cooperating to produce new outcomes through some unexplained form of 'altruism,' Corning sees 'nature's magic' of synergies underlying cooperation.
The clarity and scholarship of Corning's writing are extremely impressive, and he makes his case with a massive amount of data drawn from a wide variety of fields. There is quite obviously decades worth of research behind this book and it covers a lot of ground and has links to a number of other theories in both economics and biology.
Because it is so lucid and well-written, I can recommend this fascinating book not only to academics interested in systems science, bioeconomics, and the philosophy of biology but also to those with no academic background in biology who want to keep up with what will most likely be a significant part of the future of biological science.
on July 10, 2003
This is a marvelous book, which will change your perception of reality, of how things work and act together. Corning's central claim of the book is that synergy - "the combined, or cooperative, effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts, or individuals in a given context" (2) - complements our contemporary scientific worldview. Moreover, the concept of synergy is more tangible than the rather fuzzy concept of 'self-organization.' The concept of self-organization defies definition, while Corning is able to define synergy clearly, to list the most important properties of synergistic effects, and to give numerous examples of synergy in the living and non-living world.
Indeed, Corning is a scientist with a Wittgensteinian soul, as his adagium seems to be: do not explain so much as to show how it works! This makes the book down-to-earth, tangible, highly interesting, while the examples can be seen as practices in synergistic perception: they alter one's perception of reality. The enormous amount of bibliographical references are a highly valuable guide for further study.
I believe this book has the potential of becoming a classic in complexity-studies. It certainly deserves this status. Moreover, as a personal note: for me, working in religion and science, this book illustrates one of the central ideas of the Christian religion: that our reality is fundamentally relational.
Read it, and be amazed!
on August 8, 2003
Written by Peter Corning (Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Palo Alto, California), Nature's Magic: Synergy In Evolution And The Fate Of Humankind presents a "Synergism Hypothesis" that combines economic theory with the complexity of biology and life science. Applying theory to the evolution of humanity from the level of apes, to the acquisition of language, science, and projections of the future, Nature's Magic is a quite profound and widely encompassing amalgamation of inductive reasoning and broad repeating patterns directly affecting society itself. A work of impeccable, documented, ground breaking scholarship, Nature's Magic is so well written as to be complete accessible to academic and non-specialist general readers alike.
on July 10, 2003
This book is a great read, and it has a great message: synergy has been the key to the evolution of complex systems, including our own species. Corning shows that there are many different kinds of synergy, and he provides so many examples that I lost count. I especially liked his argument that our species invented itself. In Corning's scenario, cooperative behavioral developments, including new technologies, were a key factor in our evolution. As he says, we're still inventing ourselves. But sometimes we create "black magic" -- a nice way of putting it.