Devolution as an Opportunity to Test the Synergism Hypothesis and a Cybernetic Theory of Political Systems


Politics as Cybernetics

One of the great theoretical insights of the 20th century was physicist Norbert Wiener’s realization that information, communications and control processes — cybernetic processes — are a fundamental aspect of nature and human societies alike. Wiener’s classic statement of this vision, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), can truly be called a seminal scientific contribution, although many other theorists before and since have also made important contributions. (See especially the historical review by Charles François, 1999.)

Thanks in considerable measure to Wiener’s inspired vision, cybernetic control processes are now routinely described and analyzed at virtually every level of living systems, inclusive of social, political and technological systems.1 Indeed, the all-important concept of “feedback” has become a household word, although the term is frequently misused even by scientists. Cybernetic processes are observable in morphogenesis (the translation of genetic “instructions” into a mature organism), in cellular activity, in the workings of multicellular organisms with differentiated organ systems, in the behavior of bacterial colonies, in socially-organized species such as the true honey bee (Apis mellifera), in the operation of household thermostats, in robotics, in aerospace engineering, and much more. Cybernetics has given us a framework for understanding one of the most fundamental aspects of living systems — their dynamic “purposiveness”, or goal-directedness. Much productive research has flowed from this paradigm in fields as disparate as control engineering, molecular biology, neurobiology, psychology and, not least, political science.

Political scientists are not alone in having disagreements about how to define their subject matter. Evolutionary biologists, for instance, are not all of one mind about how to characterize evolution, or natural selection. However, they mostly know it when they see it, and their definitions tend to reflect the phenomena that they wish to emphasize, or focus upon. So it is also with “politics” and “political systems.” Some political scientists, understandably, choose to stress the role of competition and the pursuit of self-interest in the political arena. Others are interested in the nature and nurture of political power. However, the broadest, functionally-based definition is isomorphic with social cybernetics: A political system is the cybernetic aspect, or “sub-system” of any socially organized, goal-oriented group or population. Politics in these terms is a social process involving efforts to create, or to acquire control over, a cybernetic sub-system, as well as the process of exercising control. (It should be noted that the ability to set or change the goals of the system are also implicit in this definition.)

This definition is not original, of course. In fact, the term “cybernetics” can be traced back to the Greek word kybernetes, meaning steersman or helmsman, and it is also the etymological root of such English words as “governor” and “government.” In the nineteenth century, the French scientist André Ampère took to using the term cybernetics as an equivalent for politics. More recently, the term has also been employed in this manner by Karl Deutsch (1963), David Easton (1965, 1993), John Steinbruner (1974) and myself (Corning, 1974, 1983, 1996b), among others.

The single most important property of a cybernetic system is that it is goal-directed and is controlled by the relationship between its endogenous goals and the external environment. This is why feedback, properly understood, is of central importance in any political qua cybernetic system. Indeed, many of the practices of modern democracies — from free competitive elections, secret ballots and universal suffrage to the “rule of law,” an independent judiciary, civil rights and a free press — represent various instrumentalities of feedback and cybernetic control. Plato’s famous line, quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will guard the guardians), is a quintessential statement of the basic cybernetic problem. Another way of putting it is that feedback doesn’t exist if it doesn’t exercise control.

One advantage of using a cybernetic definition of politics is that it reduces the many disparate forms of political activity to an underlying set of generic properties which transcend any particular set of institutional arrangements, not to mention the motivations and perceptions of the actors who are involved. The cybernetic definition is also functionally-based; it focusses on the processes of goal-setting, decision making, communications and control (and feedback), which are found in any purposeful social organization, from families to football teams, business firms, armies and governments.

Another advantage of this definition is that it enables us to view human political systems as a variation on a common theme in the larger evolutionary process. In fact, cybernetic regulatory processes are found in all socially-organized species, from bacterial colonies to army ants and baboon troops, not to mention our remote group-living ancestors of more than four million years ago. (We will describe one example in some detail below.) Though there are obviously great differences among these species, and among human societies, in how political/cybernetic processes are organized and maintained, both the similarities and the differences are illuminating. But more important for our purpose, the evolution of cybernetic processes has closely paralleled functional developments in evolution, especially what biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (1995, 1999) call the “major transitions” in organizational complexity.

Complexity in Evolution

One of the major trends in evolutionary history has been an overall increase in biological complexity over time, although there is much disagreement about its scope and evolutionary significance. Moreover, the problem of how to define and measure complexity remains a much-debated subject. What criteria do you use to define it? How do you know it when you see it? Or don’t see it? After all, you cannot measure it unless you can define it. Many theorists side-step this issue, or assume their definition of the term is self-evident, or use criteria that are debatable, or else limit their usage to some narrow and specific type of phenomenon.

In a recent essay called “Complexity is Just a Word!” (Corning 1998b), it was argued that there is no one right way to define complexity; there is no deep property of nature that can be identified with the term, and much may depend on the eye of the beholder. In fact, there are many different, often incommensurable kinds of complexity. Therefore, it is important to specify which complexity criteria are being utilized in any given context.

For the purpose of explaining biological complexity, it has been suggested that we can employ functional criteria that are widely used both in biology and the social sciences (and control engineering). These criteria do not by any means exhaust the possible ways of measuring complexity in living systems, but they are significant because they are associated with important functional attributes and capabilities in nature, and in social systems as well. These criteria are: the number of “parts” in the system; the number of different specialized roles or functions performed by those parts (or “functional differentiation” to use a Spencerian term); and the number of cybernetic feedback loops — an indicator of cybernetic communications and control relationships, and of functional interdependencies among the parts. (It remains to be seen whether or not it is possible to develop a synthetic “index” that combines these attributes.)

Applying these criteria to living organisms, it could be argued that humans are not the most complex forms to walk (or swim) on Earth. Dinosaurs and blue whales were/are obviously vastly larger. A 150-pound human has an estimated 1013 cells of about 250 different types. A blue whale weighs about 425,000 lbs (roughly 2830 times as much as a human) and has an estimated 2.8X1015 cells. The number of different cell types in blue whales has not been determined to my knowledge, but it is unlikely that there would be a great many more or many fewer than the number of cell types in humans. On the other hand, if one counts the functional specializations that occur within each cell type, human cells perform a much greater number of distinct functional tasks. The human brain alone has an estimated 100 billion neurons that engage in an immense variety of different information processing, communications and control tasks. So, if finer-grained functional criteria are used, humans most likely represent the “pinnacle” of morphological complexity.

An obvious analogy in human societies would be the number of different types of workers in a large corporation — say General Motors. If you differentiate only between blue collar and white collar workers, or hourly and salaried employees, you will find only a small number of different worker “types” (two). But if you differentiate in terms of the specific task each employee performs, the total number is vastly larger — tens of thousands. And if you were to map the communications and control processes (the cybernetics), the system would be more complex by many orders of magnitude. Although the use of more detailed functional criteria obviously presents a major research challenge, it also introduces a more sophisticated way of measuring the capabilities of the “whole”.

The “Synergism Hypothesis”

Using these functional/cybernetic criteria, a causal theory to account for the evolution of complex systems in nature was developed at length in The Synergism Hypothesis: A Theory of Progressive Evolution (McGraw-Hill, 1983). (Updated summaries can be found in Corning 1996a,b, 1998a.) In essence, the Synergism Hypothesis is an “economic” theory (broadly defined) of organized complexity in evolution. The hypothesis is that the functional (selective) advantages arising from various forms of functional synergy are what account for the important trend toward greater complexity in evolution; over the course of evolutionary history, a common functional principle has been operative. Synergy of various kinds has been the common denominator, so to speak, in the process of evolutionary complexification. Moreover, this theory is applicable to bacterial colonies and human societies alike. It is a unifying causal theory of functional complexity in evolution.

An important corollary of this theory, which makes it highly relevant for social scientists, is that cybernetic communications and control processes (“government” in a broad sense) are a necessary concomitant of organized complexity; not only are political qua cybernetic processes found at all levels in complex biological and biosocial systems but the fate of these processes is ultimately tied to the underlying functional synergies that the systems produce.

The Synergism Hypothesis is based on two relatively straightforward ideas. The first is that, in the dynamics of evolutionary processes, effects are also causes. It is the functional effects produced by a gene, or a genome or an interdependent set of genomes (symbionts, individual co-operators or social groups) in a given environmental context that determine the survival and reproductive success of the “replicators” — the genes — and their “vehicles” or “vessels.” Likewise, in human societies it is the functional effects produced by a behavior, a tool, a technology or a social practice in a given cultural context that (by and large) determines its ultimate persistence or disappearance over time. (Biologist Richard Dawkins has coined the neologism “memes” as a cultural analogue for genes.) There are, of course, many contingencies and historical “accidents” in evolution — from mutations to monsoons. There are also many physical and biochemical “laws” and constraints that canalize the process in various ways. The Nobel geneticist Jacques Monod (1971) famously characterized these influences as “chance and necessity.”

However, the evolution of functional adaptations in nature is primarily governed by natural selection — the differential survival and reproduction of functional variants. Natural selection is not a “mechanism”. It is in reality an “umbrella term” that serves to identify and label an open-ended class of phenomena whose functional effects are always context specific. The process of selection in fact refers to whatever functionally-important effects are the proximate causes of differential survival in a given situation. (For a detailed discussion of this dynamic, see Corning 1983, 1998a.) Similarly, there is an analogue to natural selection in cultural evolution that can appropriately be called — out of a sense of fairness to its originator if nothing else — “Neo-Lamarckian Selection.” (Many similar terms can be found in the literature on cultural evolution, including organic selection, holistic selection, internal selection, behavioral selection, cultural selection, social selection, rational preselection, and the like.)

The second element of the Synergism Hypothesis concerns the fact that, among the many possible kinds of functional effects that might contribute to differential survival, synergistic effects of various kinds are of particular importance and, moreover, have been centrally involved in the evolution of co-operative relationships and complexity in nature. Synergy is frequently identified with the familiar slogan “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (or 2+2=5), which dates back to Aristotle in The Metaphysics, but this is actually an inadequate and even misleading caricature. There are, in fact, a vast array of different kinds of synergies in nature, and many of them are not in any sense “greater” than the parts; they involve effects that are simply different from what the parts can produce alone. Accordingly, synergy may be defined as combined effects produced by two or more parts, elements or individuals that are not otherwise attainable.

Some Examples

Some of the many different kinds of synergistic effects are described and categorized in Corning (1983, 1995, 1996a,b, 1998a). One non-obvious illustration is the center of gravity of an automobile. Although the center of gravity greatly affects a vehicle’s performance, it is in reality a combined effect produced by the car’s 15,000 or so parts and how they are assembled. Another commonplace illustration of synergy involves the combination of chlorine and sodium. These two substances are both toxic to humans by themselves, but when they are combined they produce a totally new substance that is positively beneficial (in moderate amounts) — ordinary table salt (NaCl).

One cup of beans, eaten by itself, provides the nutritional equivalent of two ounces of steak. Three cups of whole grain flour consumed alone provides the equivalent of five ounces of steak. But when the beans and flour are ingested together in a taco, they provide the equivalent of 9.33 ounces of steak, or 33% more usable protein. The reason is that their constituent amino acids are complementary. Grains are low in lysine, while legumes are low in methionine. Together they compensate for each other’s deficiencies.

Synergy is also associated with many human technologies. For instance, duralumin is a compound of aluminum, copper, manganese and magnesium that combines the light weight of aluminum with the strength of steel. There is also synergy in the so-called superalloys composed of nickel, cobalt and various other elements. Superalloys are favored for jet engines and spacecraft because they can resist very high temperatures, high pressures and oxidation.

Or consider the technology of cogeneration. If an industrial plant needs both electricity to power its machinery and steam heat or hot water for various other needs, a cogeneration system can do both jobs at once with results that are synergistic. An electrical power plant alone has an efficiency that rarely exceeds 40%. A conventional hot water heater has an efficiency of about 65%. In both cases, the unused energy goes to waste (entropy). By combining the two processes in one system, energy efficiencies of 95% can be achieved at a much lower overall cost. Cogeneration systems typically pay for themselves in three to five years.

Needless to say, synergy is also ubiquitous in social life, from bacterial colonies to human polities. One unique example involves the huddling behavior of emperor penguins. During the brutally cold Antarctic winter, when temperatures can fall to -15.5o Celsius and winds can reach hurricane force, the penguins that live in this desolate, snow-swept environment huddle together in tightly packed groups for several months at a time. In so doing, they are able to share precious body heat and provide insulation for one another. As a result, the penguins are able to reduce their energy expenditures by as much as 50% (Le Maho 1977).

Synergy Via Symbiosis

Symbiosis between organisms of different species is also an important source of synergy in nature. One dramatic illustration involves the African honey guide. The honey guide is an unusual bird with a peculiar taste for beeswax, a substance that is more difficult to digest even than cellulose. In order to obtain beeswax, however, the honey guide must first locate a hive then attract the attention of a co-conspirator, such as the African badger (or ratel). The reason is that the ratel has the ability to attack and dismember the hive, after which it will reward itself by eating the honey while leaving the wax behind. Furthermore, this unusual example of co-operative predation by two very different species depends upon a third co-conspirator. It happens that the honey guides cannot digest beeswax. They are aided by a symbiotic gut bacterium which produces an enzyme that can break down wax molecules. So this improbable but synergistic feeding relationship is really triangular. (Bonner 1988).

What makes this example of synergy via symbiosis particularly apropos for social scientists is the fact that the African honey guides also form symbiotic partnerships with humans, including the nomadic Boran people of northern Kenya. (This is, of course, only one of many examples of animal-human symbioses.) Biologists Hussein Issack and Hans-Ulrich Reyer conducted a systematic study of this behavior pattern some years ago and quantified the synergies. They found that Boran honey hunting groups were approximately three times as efficient at finding bees’ nests when they were guided by the birds. They required an average of 3.2 hours to locate the nest compared with 8.9 hours when they were unassisted. The benefit to the honey guides was even greater. An estimated 96% of the bees’ nests that were discovered during the study would not have been accessible to the birds had the humans not used tools to pry them open. The bird-human partnership is also aided by two-way communications — vocalizations that serve as signals (Issack and Reyer 1989). (This also illustrates our thesis that complex systems in nature require cybernetic communications and control processes.)

One of the most extraordinary examples of a symbiotic partnership in nature, however, involves the single-celled protist Mixotricha paradoxa. In fact, each Mixotricha cell represents an association of at least five different kinds of organisms. In addition to the host cell, there are three external (surface) symbionts, including large spirochetes, small spirochetes and bacteria. The function of the large spirochetes, if any, is not clear; they may even be parasites. However, the small hair-like spirochetes, which typically number 250,000 to 500,000 per cell, cover the surface and provide an effective propulsion system for their host through highly coordinated undulations. Each of these spirochetes, in turn, is associated with a third symbiont, a rod-shaped “anchoring” bacterium. Finally, each Mixotricha host cell contains an internal symbiont — a bacterium that may serve as an energy factory (like the mitochondria in other cells). What makes this five-way partnership all the more remarkable is that each Mixotricha cell is itself an endosymbiont. It populates the intestine of the Australian termite, Mastotermes darwinensis, where it performs the essential service of breaking down the cellulose ingested by its accommodating host (Margulis and McMenamin 1993; Mayr 1974).

Synergy Versus Emergence

Although many theorists these days have adopted the term “emergence” to characterize the synergies produced by complex systems, there are major problems with this terminology. One objection is that the term emergence has, in effect, been corrupted by its common use as a synonym for “appearance.” For instance, the word emergence is illustrated in the Thorndike dictionary with “the sun emerged from behind a cloud.” Similarly, an on-line search using the term “emergence” yielded a plethora of journal and book titles related to such things as the emergence of democracy in Central America, the emergence of soccer as a high school sport in the U.S., the emergence of the environmental protection movement, the emergence of complexity theory, and many others.

Equally important, emergence does not encompass or adequately characterize many of the diverse kinds of synergies that occur in nature. Synergy is in fact a multi-faceted phenomenon. For instance, a beach might consist of an aggregate of, say, 1014 grains of sand. When they are packed together, these minute crystals can provide a firm surface that is able to support the weight of a human. But a beach is not an emergent phenomenon; it is a synergistic effect involving a large collection of more or less identical units — a “synergy of scale.”

Accordingly, it seems preferable to associate the term emergence with a limited subset of the broad universe of synergistic effects, namely those that have distinctly new physical properties (say when hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce water). Emergent effects in this sense are unambiguous and clearly distinct from aggregate effects of various kinds, or anything that merely “appears” to our perceptions to be a unified whole. (Indeed, the term synergy is widely employed in such “hard” biological sciences as biochemistry, molecular biology and neurobiology. It would seem desirable to use the same term to characterize analogous effects at other levels in nature and human societies.)

But whatever the terminology, the Synergism Hypothesis asserts that various forms of functional synergy represent the underlying cause — the common denominator — of the evolutionary trend toward co-operative relationships, symbiosis and functional complexity, in nature and in human societies alike. Moreover, it is also the simplest and most parsimonious explanation of co-operation/complexity, because it encompasses the broadest array of these phenomena and identifies a fundamentally important common aspect. However, it should also be emphasized that the Synergism Hypothesis does not involve a different theory of evolution but rather a different focus on the same process — a focus on the “economics” (broadly defined) of evolution. It could be also called “Holistic Darwinism.”

Among other things, synergy is the common (necessary if not sufficient) ingredient in the various “paths” to co-operation in nature that have been identified by behavioral biologists. Lee Dugatkin (1999) lists four — (1) altruism among kin; (2) reciprocal altruism, (3) mutualism and (4) by-product mutualism. But other paths (including “teamwork” or functional interdependency) can be added to Dugatkin’s list. All of these paths require synergy. Synergy is also the common element in the wealth of game theory models of co-operation; it is merely disguised in the numbers used in the payoff matrices. And synergy is the common feature in various forms of symbioses between different species; symbionts may produce survival-related co-operative functional effects that are not otherwise attainable.

A Favorable Tide?

There is a metaphor in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that has been borrowed by many modern authors, perhaps because it seems to capture an eternal truth: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Thus, in the 1930s the historian Arthur Schlesinger (senior) used Shakespeare’s famous image in a widely-acclaimed article called “The Tides of American Politics” (1939). In the 1960s, the historian Jacques Pirenne wrote a magisterial volume that was translated and published in English as The Tides of History (1962). Political scientist Karl Deutsch also used the metaphor in the title of his classic text on the Tides Among Nations (1979).

Tide changes can also affect the reception of scientific theories. A classic case in point is biologist Barbara McClintock’s work on the so-called “jumping genes” — genetic rearrangements during the development of an organism via what are now called “transposons” (or transposable elements) that can produce variations in the fully-developed “phenotype” of an organism (such as the different color patterns in maize). This phenomenon, painstakingly documented by McClintock over many years, remained in the shadows until late in her life. The main reason was that it contradicted the then reigning “central dogma” of molecular biology — namely, that the genes are expressed during development in a linear, deterministic fashion (DNA to RNA to proteins). Now, of course, it is recognized that development is a much more complex process and that a variety of non-linear, self-organizing, feedback-dependent influences may affect the outcome (Keller 1983).

A similar tide-change currently seems to be taking place with respect to our appreciation of the role of co-operation, symbiosis and synergy in evolution. One early sign was the adoption of the synergy concept in the 1980s by the eminent biologist John Maynard Smith, who developed a “synergistic selection” model to characterize the interdependent functional effects that can arise from altruistic co-operation. (Maynard Smith later broadened the concept to accord with a strictly functional interpretation of co-operation, whether altruistic or not (Maynard Smith 1982a, 1983, 1989). Also important was the growing body of work in game theory (so-called) on the evolution of co-operation, using the methodology pioneered by Maynard Smith (1982b, 1984).

Another significant contribution was made by biologist Leo Buss in his 1987 book on the evolution of higher levels of organization. Buss invoked the concept of synergy, though in a narrow sense and without much elaboration. The biologically-oriented psychologist David Smillie (1993) also utilized the concept of synergy in connection with his study of social interactions in nature.

Biologist David Sloan Wilson and various colleagues have also played an important role with their dogged efforts over the past 20 years to put the much-criticized concept of “group selection” on a new footing. Although Wilson’s approach remains gene-centered, he stresses the role of what he calls a “shared fate” among individual co-operators, which implies a functional interdependency (Wilson 1975, 1980; Wilson and Sober 1994). Another significant contribution is the experimental work of biologist Lee Dugatkin on co-operation, along with his recent books on the varieties of co-operation in nature (Dugatkin 1997, 1999).

Especially important, however, is the work of biologist Lynn Margulis on the role of “symbiogenesis” in evolution, particularly in relation to the origins of complex, eukaryotic cells. Now recognized as a major theoretical contribution, this concept — which traces to a group of Russian botanists at the turn of the last century — has focussed our attention on a domain in which synergistic functional effects have been of decisive importance as a causal agency in evolution (Khakhina 1979, 1992; Margulis and McMenamin 1993).

But perhaps the most significant sign that a favorable tide now exists for the synergy concept are the books co-authored 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 highlight the central role of synergy at various levels of biological organization. To quote Maynard Smith and Szathmáry: “Co-operation will not evolve unless it pays. Two co-operating individuals must do better than they would if each acted on its own….In later chapters we look in detail at the various transitions in which independent entities have come to exist. Usually, both relatedness and synergy were important” (1999:22,25). Maynard Smith now recognizes the “universal” importance of functional synergy (in a personal communication), as does Ernst Mayr (also in a personal communication).

Support for the Synergism Hypothesis

Evidence for the role of synergy at every level of living systems is compelling. To mention just a few “highlights”: Beginning with the very origins of life, synergy is the common functional premise in all of the various formal hypotheses that have been proposed for the earliest steps in the evolutionary process, from Eigen and Schuster’s (1977, 1979) “hypercycles” to Szathmáry and Demeter’s (1987) “stochastic corrector” model and Wächtershäuser’s (1988, 1990) surface metabolism model. All share the common assumption that co-operative interactions among various component “parts” played a central role in catalyzing living systems.

DNA, the basic molecule of life, also utilizes synergy. Among other things, the double-stranded, antiparallel backbone, or scaffolding of each giant DNA molecule hangs together only because there are covalent electron bonds that “glue” together the atoms of its constituent phosphate and deoxyribose molecules. By the same token, the vital role of DNA in biosynthesis is made possible by a highly coordinated division of labor between three different forms of RNA — the messenger RNA that makes copies of the relevant DNA sequence, the transfer RNA that assembles the appropriate amino acids, and the ribosomal RNA that lines up the amino acids in the proper order for assembling a protein.

Similarly, at the level of the genome, it goes without saying that genes do not act alone, even when major single-gene effects are involved. In fact, the human genome sequencing project has established, among other things, that there are 1,195 distinctive genes associated with the human heart, 2,164 with white blood cells and 3,195 with the human brain (Little 1995). The functional (morphogenetic) implications of those numbers are awesome to contemplate.

The origin of chromosomes, likewise, may have involved a co-operative/symbiotic process (see Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1993). Sexual reproduction, one of the major outstanding puzzles in evolutionary theory, is also a co-operative phenomenon, as the term is used here. Although there is still great uncertainty about the precise nature of the benefits, it is assumed that sexual reproduction is, by and large, a mutually beneficial joint venture.

As we move up “the great chain of being” (in that still-useful anachronism), we find further variations on the theme of functional co-operation. Once upon a time bacteria were considered to be mostly loners, but no longer. It is now recognized that large-scale, sophisticated co-operative efforts — complete with a division of labor — are commonplace among bacteria and can be traced back at least to the origin of the so-called stromatolites (rocky mineral deposits) that were constructed by bacterial colonies some 3.5 billion years ago (Shapiro 1988; Shapiro and Dworkin 1997; Margulis 1993). Shapiro suggests that bacterial colonies can be likened to multicellular organisms.

Complex eukaryotic cells (some 10,000 times the size of a bacterium on the average) can also be characterized as co-operative ventures — obligate federations that may have originated as symbiotic unions (parasitic, predatory or perhaps mutualistic) between ancient prokaryote hosts and what have now become cytoplasmic organelles, particularly the mitochondria, the chloroplasts and, possibly, eukaryotic undulipodia (cilia) and certain internal structures that may have evolved from structurally-similar spirochete ancestors (Margulis 1993).

Synergy in Superorganisms

Of particular relevance to social scientists is the synergy associated with social organization, what Herbert Spencer called a “superorganism”. One compelling example of a superorganism in nature involves the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), a unique African rodent species that lives in large underground colonies (usually numbering 75-80 but sometimes over 200). Naked mole-rats represent a particularly significant illustration of an economic division of labor, because these odd-looking animals — affectionately dubbed “sabre-toothed sausages” — have morphologically-specialized castes and a pattern of breeding restrictions that is both unique among mammals and suggestive of eusocial insects. Typically (but not always), the breeding is done by a single “queen”, with other reproductively suppressed females waiting in the wings. The smallest of the non-breeders, both males and females, engage in co-operative tunnel-digging, tunnel-cleaning and nest-making, as well as carrying pups, foraging and the transportation of food (succulent tubers) within the colony’s often extensive tunnel systems. (One investigator, Robert A. Brett, found a tunnel system in Kenya that was more that 3 kilometers long, altogether, and occupied an area equivalent to 20 football fields.) Sherman et al., (1992:75), who have studied these animals extensively, provide the following description of the mole-rats’ co-operative tunnel-building efforts:

The animals line up head-to-tail behind an individual who is gnawing [with it’s outsized, powerful front teeth] on the earth at the end of a developing tunnel. Once a pile of soil has accumulated behind the digger, the next mole-rat in line begins transporting it through the tunnel system, often by sweeping it backward with its hind feet. Colony mates stand on tiptoe and allow the earthmover to pass underneath them; then, in turn, they each take their place at the head of the line. When the earthmover finally arrives at a surface opening, it sweeps its load to a large colony mate that has stationed itself there. This “volcanoer” [so-called because its actions appear to an observer outside to resemble miniature volcano eruptions] ejects the dirt in a fine spray with powerful kicks of its hind feet, while the smaller worker rejoins the living conveyor belt.

The vital and dangerous role of defense in a mole-rat colony is also allocated to the largest colony members, who respond to intruders, such as predatory snakes, by trying to kill or bury them and by sealing off the tunnel system to protect the colony. The mole-rats’ “militia” will also mobilize for defense against intruders from other colonies.

Why do mole-rats utilize this highly co-operative survival strategy? Eusociality is relatively rare in nature, and the traditional view has been that a haplodiploid reproductive pattern provides a genetic facilitator. But this is obviously not the case with mole-rats, which are diploid. (Indeed, it seems that haplodiploidy is neither necessary nor sufficient; all species of Hymenoptera are haplodiploid, but most are not eusocial; on the other hand, all termites are eusocial and diploid.) Sherman et al., (1992) provide a bioeconomic (synergy) explanation for the mole-rat strategy: “We hypothesize that naked mole-rats live in groups because of several ecological factors. The harsh environment, patchy food distribution and the difficulty of burrowing when the soil is dry and hard, as well as intense predation, make dispersal and independent breeding almost impossible. By co-operating to build, maintain and defend a food-rich subterranean fortress, each mole-rat enhances its own survival” (p.78). (See also Sherman et al., 1991.) (Although it is not stressed in the mole-rat research literature, another critically important facilitator is a co-operative relationship — and synergy — between the mole-rats and endosymbiotic bacteria that are able to break down the cellulose in succulent tubers.

If the economics — the functional synergies — provide an important part of the explanation for the naked mole-rat survival strategy, the “political” (cybernetic) aspects are equally important, and are also well-documented. As is the case with many other socially-organized species, naked mole-rats exhibit a combination of self-organized co-operation (pre-programmed individual “volunteerism”) and orchestrated social controls that are policed by various coercive means. The control role of the breeding queen is of central importance. The queen is usually the largest animal in the colony (size usually determines the dominance hierarchy), and she aggressively patrols, prods, shoves and vocally harangues the other animals to perform their appointed tasks. Indeed, it has been observed that her level of aggressiveness varies with the relative urgency of the tasks at hand. In addition, the queen acts to suppress breeding and reproduction on the part of non-queen females, who are always ready to take over that role. (Occasionally other females are allowed to share the breeding function with the queen; why this is so is not known.) The queen also intervenes frequently in the low-level competition that goes on among colony members over such things as nesting sites and the exploitation of food sources. And when the reigning queen dies, there is a sometimes bloody contest among the remaining females to determine her successor.

All of this control activity is facilitated by an elaborate communication system that includes 17 distinct categories of vocalizations — alarms, recruitment calls, defensive alerts, aggressive threats, breeding signals, etc. In fact, the mole-rats’ communication system rivals that of some primate species in its level of sophistication. Thus, a naked mole-rat colony may be characterized as a superorganism with a superordinate system of cybernetic control (“government”). In accordance with the Synergism Hypothesis, functional synergy and cybernetic processes go hand-in-hand in mole-rat societies.

Testing the Synergism Hypothesis

Can this theory of complexity — and the corollary theory of political/cybernetic complexity — be tested? One approach involves a standard research methodology in both the life sciences and the social sciences, comparative studies. Often a controlled comparison will allow for the precise measurement of a synergistic effect. On example, mentioned earlier, involves the energy-savings associated with emperor penguin huddling behaviors. Lichens provide another ready-made example. Many of these diverse symbiotic partnerships — involving some 20,000 different species of green algae or cyanobacteria and fungi — are facultative; the two partners can also exist independently. In a detailed comparative study, biologist John Raven found that overall nutrient and energy uptake was significantly better in the partnerships than in their “asymbiotic” cousins (Raven 1992).

Another way of testing for synergy involves experiments or “thought experiments” in which a major part is removed from the “whole” and the consequences are then observed, an idea originally suggested by Aristotle in The Metaphysics (1041b11-31) — to my astonishment. Thus, for example, it is not hard to imagine what would happen if a major gene were to be removed from the homeobox gene complex, or if the mitochondria were removed from a eukaryotic cell, or the gut bacteria from a termite, or the sub-majors (porters) from an army ant colony, or a wheel from an automobile, or the water supply from a human settlement. Or, for that matter, electrical power from any modern, computer-dependent society. We refer to this methodology as “synergy-minus-one,” after those recordings that were popular a few years ago called Music Minus One, which allowed a singer or instrumentalist to fill in the missing part in a recording.

This and other ways of testing for synergy are discussed in more detail elsewhere (Corning 1983, 1996a,b, 1998a). For our purpose, the Synergism Hypothesis is highly relevant to the problem of explaining macro-level political devolution because it predicts that the specific causes are likely to vary from one case to the next and that the disruption of even one major element of the full “package” of basic survival needs for a human population may be fatal (see below). For the Easter Islanders, the decisive factors were (apparently) the exhaustion of their wood supply and soil depletion. For the Ik it was a drought. For the Moriori it was a genocidal invasion. For the Aboriginal Australians, the South African San people, the Mississippian chiefdoms and many other Native American civilizations, it was imported disease epidemics. And for a large number of Mesopotamian civilizations (according to the theory proposed by Harvey Weiss, 1993, 1998), a severe, sustained region-wide drought about 4,000 years ago most likely devastated and depopulated almost simultaneously many otherwise thriving Middle Eastern societies, along with their political systems.

In short, if synergy refers to the combined effects produced by wholes, the removal of even a single major part should have a negative effect on the performance of the whole and may even be fatal. And if political cum cybernetic control systems arise to facilitate the operation of complex, synergistic systems at all levels of social organization, then the fate of the political system is necessarily tied to the functional viability — the economics — of the system and its parts. Thus, synergy — or rather the loss of it — is centrally involved in what is often referred to as political “devolution.”

The Devolution of ‘Devolution’

Devolution is a political buzzword these days as empires, nations, bureaucracies and even business-firms collapse, divide, downsize, outsource and in various ways become less than they once were. The term is commonly used in two different ways. On the one hand, it has been associated with the current trend in western countries toward reducing or relinquishing the central government’s role (power and resources) in relation to various social programs and services — welfare, aid to education, health care, railroads, public utilities and the like. States and provinces (and even the private sector) are being granted greater responsibility for these functions.

On the other hand, “devolution” is also widely used in connection with a broader political trend that involves the breaking up of entire polities — empires and nation-states. (Whether or not it will become a long-term trend remains to be seen.) Devolution in this sense often involves the redrawing of political boundaries. Whole populations may be divided into new political units. Thus the British Commonwealth today exists largely on paper; the Soviet Union is long gone (though the situation bears watching); Yugoslavia is still fighting about its dismemberment; the United Kingdom is in the process of devolving as we speak; and there was recently a near-miss in Canada when the issue was put to a vote in Quebec.

Yet, paradoxically, in other quarters the very concept has lately become taboo. To many evolutionary biologists and anthropologists, devolution is redolent of “orthogenesis” — the view that evolution has an inherent directionality toward some form of improvement or perfection. Many 19th and early 20th century evolutionists assumed that there has indeed been a broad, “progressive” trend in evolution which, of course, has culminated in humankind. In this paradigm, devolution represents a setback, or deviation from the main course. There are hints of this vision in Aristotle, but it was more clearly enunciated by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, Herbert Spencer, and a veritable host of their intellectual progeny over the past century. For instance, anthropologist Robert Carneiro, following Spencer, defines evolution as a directional change toward greater complexity, while devolution to him connotes a temporary step backward, a regression (Carneiro 1972, 1973).

The critics of orthogenesis contend that this conception of the evolutionary process is fundamentally flawed, and wishful thinking. “Progress” is unavoidably a value-laden term that imposes external criteria on a process that is not in fact guided or pointed in some specific direction. Darwin’s theory of evolution is fundamentally opposed to deterministic theories like Herbert Spencer’s universal “law” of evolution and many similar formulations, from Tielhard de Chardin’s “Omega point” to Ilya Prigogine’s thermodynamic version of the “law of evolution.” Darwinian evolution has no hidden agenda. It is governed by adaptation to the immediate context, or local circumstances, and any observed trends are artifacts of past evolutionary history.

All this is true enough. However, some “anti-progressives” have thrown out the baby with the bathwater; they seem to deny the reality and significance of cumulative, functionally-based (naturally selected) trends in evolution. It is perfectly legitimate and proper to recognize that there have in fact been specific directional trends of various kinds over the course of evolutionary history that are not the products of orthogenesis, or vitalism, or thermodynamic laws, or for that matter random accidents (a “drunkard’s walk” in Stephen Jay Gould’s characterization).

This is not to say that such evolutionary trends are irreversible; they are at all times contingent. But they can properly be labelled “progressive” in relation to some specific criterion, and in many cases these criteria involve functional improvements — greater efficiency, lower costs, higher yields, greater reliability, etc. Indeed, a great many traits in complex organisms, from the four nucleotide bases that comprise the genetic “alphabet” to the homeobox gene complex, nucleated eukaryotic cells and endoskeletons, represent evolutionary “inventions” that have been “conserved” over countless generations. Accordingly, “devolution,” “adaptive simplification,” “regressive evolution,” and similar terms may imply nothing more sinister than the reversal of a clearly defined functional trend of some sort.

To illustrate, it can properly be said that compound, image-focussing eyes with some 2.5 million photo-receptors (plus supporting neural processing equipment), which are capable of producing full-color, stereoscopic, “motion-picture” images of the surrounding environment, are functionally superior to a single photo-receptor cell or even a small cluster of light-sensing cells behind a small pinhole. There has been evolutionary “progress” in the sense of cumulative functional improvements over time in the eyes of certain lineages with respect to clearly defined functional criteria. However, this has not been the result of a unilinear trend. Eyes of various kinds have arisen perhaps 40 or more different times over the course of evolutionary history and have utilized several different functional principles.

Devolution in the sense of the loss of some functional trait, or capability has also been a common occurrence in evolution. There are many examples: the loss of eyesight in cave-dwellers; flightless birds; the atrophied forelimbs of kangaroos; hair loss in the naked mole-rats (and humans); the loss in humans of the ability to synthesize ascorbic acid; the loss of mitochondria in some eukaryotic protists; the surrender by the chloroplasts in land plants of some 254 genes and, consequently, a loss of the ability to synthesize some 46 proteins that their free-living “cousins” can produce (Margulis and Sagan 1995).

Poltical Devolution Defined

The term political devolution can be defined in a number of different ways. It could refer to reduced complexity, or it could mean only the complete collapse, dissolution or physical extinction of a population. Likewise, it could refer to a voluntary disaggregation, or only to an externally-imposed or coerced change.

Here the focus will be limited to the cybernetics — systems of communications and control among various human groups, and populations. To be specific, the “progressive” evolution of political complexity will be associated here with the communications and control processes that are necessary concomitants of being able to mobilize people and resources for one or more collective purposes — from group hunting to co-operative foraging, collective farms, or defense and offense against other groups (or other species for that matter). The converse, then, involves a decline or collapse of a cybernetic (political) system and its capabilities. In these terms, political devolution can be either voluntary or coerced. It can involve only a limited functional decline or it can be accompanied by the physical disappearance of a population. But, in any case, the hypothesis is that both the development and the dismemberment of any political system is ultimately determined by the “economics” — its integral relationship to the production of various functional synergies.

Many forms of political devolution in these terms involve the termination of a system that was only temporary, narrowly focussed and ephemeral to begin with. The research literature on primates and social carnivores provides many examples: temporary coalitions of lions, hyenas, or chimpanzees that coordinate individual efforts for the purpose of joint predation, or for collective defense against another group, or to compete with other males for mating privileges, or even to contain and resist a dominant animal. In these cases, devolution occurs when the job is done.

There are also a great many examples of ephemeral political systems in human societies. When the basketball game is over, the team-members go home for the night; when the show is over, the actors disperse; and when the collective response to a local disaster has achieved its immediate objectives, the ad hoc political system that arose to coordinate the efforts of various agencies (fire, police, repair services, shelter and food distribution services, volunteers, etc.) will be disbanded. Disaster-response systems have been studied in depth by political scientist Louise Comfort (1994a,b, 1998). We will describe one famous example in greater detail below.

Similarly, in the business world there are innumerable joint ventures and partnerships between separate firms. Many of these are short term and single-purpose, but many others are multi-faceted and long-enduring. In either case, devolution is a common occurrence in the private sector as well. The downsizing of many 1960s “conglomerates” during the past decade or so provides one obvious example. By the same token, there have been innumerable military alliances between “bands, tribes, chiefdomships and states” (to use the older terminology) over the millennia that have lasted only so long as there was a common enemy to be resisted — or attacked.

However, the most significant cases of political devolution involve what can be characterized as the “collective survival enterprise” — a more or less permanent association for one or more basic, survival-related purposes. As indicated in Figure 1, the “survival enterprise” frame of reference can be operationalized in terms of an array of 14 “basic needs” that, to a first approximation, provide the specifications for the survival and reproduction (adaptation) of any given individual, or an entire human population. (A detailed explication of this paradigm and a discussion of its use as an analytical tool can be found in Corning, 1983; 2000a.)

Studies of Devolution

There is, needless to say, a long tradition of scholarship on political devolution, from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the writings of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Herbert Simon, various systems theorists, chaos theorists and, of course, many modern-day environmentalists (the Club of Rome and the “Limits to Growth” theorists come to mind). There is even a specialized area of engineering, called “failure analysis,” that includes behavioral systems as well.

Especially important, however, are the data and case-studies on political devolution that can be found in the research literature in anthropology and archeology, along with ancient history. Examples are plentiful, for a great many societies over the millennia have downsized, disaggregated or disappeared. Some were defeated on the battlefield and were put to the torch. Others vanished mysteriously. Still others seem to have been burdened by a complicated nexus of destructive influences — a negative synergy. By the same token, in some cases the society’s “central places” were totally depopulated while in other cases the population continued to grow in succeeding centuries, albeit under new management. The list of relevant case-studies includes, among many others, the Mayans, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Anastazi, the Hohokam, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Akkadians, the Hittites, the Minoans, Mohenjo-Daro, the Easter Islanders, the Moriori, the Tasmanians, the Maasai, the Hawiian and Zulu kingdoms, Han China, Carthage and, of course, Rome.

Among the more systematic studies related to this subject, four in particular are relevant here. One indirect treatment of this issue can be found in Robert Edgerton’s 1992 book, Sick Societies. Edgerton’s overall focus is the problem of adaptation in human societies. He debunks the “Panglossian” notion held by some anthropologists that human societies/cultures are generally well adapted and that every cultural practice, no matter how bizarre it may seem, is adaptive for the society in which it is found. (He rejects the argument that our cultural blinders prevent us from understanding other societies.)

On the contrary, Edgerton argues, there are a great many practices that are objectively harmful to individuals and, in some cases, whole populations. Some of these practices even imperil biological survival. To cite one of the examples Edgerton uses, the Bena Bena of the New Guinea highlands suffer from a shortage of protein, yet they have a taboo against eating chickens (or chicken eggs), which are plentiful in their environment. (Other clear-cut examples, according to Edgerton, include the Nuer, the Tasmanians and perhaps such communal organizations as the Shakers and the Oneida Community.)

The list of maladaptive practices compiled by Edgerton includes witchcraft, slavery, infanticide, human sacrifices, rape, torture, wife beating, female genital mutilation, homicide, feuding, bizarre nutritional and health practices, environmental pollution, and more. Even in modern industrial societies, Edgerton notes, there are many maladaptive practices — smoking, drinking, drugs, rape, homicide, wife beating, anorexia, and so on. (Indeed, Edgerton claims that maladaptive practices in folk societies have been under-reported by generations of overly sympathetic anthropologists.) As Edgerton puts it: “All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others.”

Of course, many societies seem to thrive, and continue to grow in numbers, despite such practices. How come? The short answer is that the entire spectrum of basic survival needs (the 14 needs domains mentioned above and shown in Figure 1) must be taken into consideration. From this perspective, the maladaptive practices reported by Edgerton may not be a major factors in most cases of political devolution. In some cases, bizarre customs may only be symptomatic of deeper problems.

This conclusion is supported by two major anthropological studies of societal collapses. One is the edited volume by Norman Yoffee and George Cowgill, The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations (1988), which includes 11 detailed case-studies and analyses, from Rome to Mesoamerica and Han China. The editors also draw a distinction between political decline/ collapse and the collapse of a “civilization,” although they are vague about exactly what these terms include. (Nor do they attempt to define precisely what constitutes a “rise” or a “decline” and how to measure them; perhaps it was assumed that the definitions would “emerge” from the 11 contributed chapters.)

In any case, Yoffee and Cowgill’s most important overall conclusion, from our point of view, was that every collapse was different. No consistent pattern could be found and there are no evident “prime movers” in the process of political decline. Although a variety of contributing factors could be identified — poor leadership, trade disruptions, climate changes, government corruption, inflation, etc., — many of the examples used in this volume seemed to involve what Rice Odell is quoted as calling a “synergistic result” of a combination of factors, rather than a single decisive coup (p. 6).

Rome, as the saying goes, was neither built nor destroyed in a day. The sack of Rome by Alaric in 476 A.D., culminated several centuries of relative decline involving a complex nexus of ecological, economic, social and political factors. No doubt this is one reason why the fall of the Roman Empire is a source of endless fascination — and endless scholarship. Rome provides a relatively well-documented example of a multi-factored, “dysergistic” process, but it is not unique. Yoffee also cites political scientist Herbert Kaufman’s reference (in his contributed chapter) to a “downward spiral” of mutually-harmful endogenous and/or exogenous factors. (Biologist cum anthropologist Peter Richerson has helpfully suggested the term “synergy minus n” for the various cases where multiple, interacting factors seem to precipitate a collapse.)

Tainter’s Theory

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), a formidable single-authored synthesis, represents an attempt to develop a broad explanatory principle for political devolution. Tainter supports his thesis with material from 20 case-studies, drawn from both Old and New World settings and various historical eras.

Complex human civilizations, Tainter points out, are “fragile, impermanent things,” and a study of the many known examples of societal collapse can, he says, illuminate the underlying principles that govern both their rise and their decline. Tainter’s objective, then, is to offer a “general explanation” for why such reversals of fortune have occurred over the course of human history.

Tainter begins by noting that there have been at least 11 specific “themes” (not mutually-exclusive or free of overlaps) that various authors have associated with socio-political collapses: (1) depletion or denial of a major resource, (2) the establishment of a new resource base, (3) the occurrence of an “insurmountable” catastrophe, (4) an “insufficient” response to some challenge, (5) the actions of other societies, (6) “intruders,” (7) class conflicts or elite mismanagement, (8) social “dysfunction,” (9) “mystical factors,” (10) a chance concatenation of events, and (11) economic factors. Tainter disagrees with these theorists, however. He finds all of these explanations insufficient, except perhaps as contributing factors.

In developing his own alternative explanation, Tainter truncates the scope and applicability of his theory by defining a “rise” or a “collapse” as primarily a “political process.” Accordingly, he limits his theory only to reductions in “socio-political complexity.” However, he does not define political “complexity” in such a way that one can measure it in real-world situations, and in his accompanying discussion he blurs the distinctions between complexity, inefficiency, bloat, the sheer number of workers, or other phenomena. Indeed, a collapse in his terms only differs from a decline in its relative suddenness and rapidity, not its concrete consequences. Nor does Tainter give us any measuring rod for devolution, or even a surrogate “indicator.”

Tainter’s key proposition is that the collapse of a complex socio-political system will occur when there are “declining marginal returns” — when the economic costs of additional investments in complexity outweigh the additional benefits. Not only are we left in the dark about how to measure complexity but we are not given any way of measuring the marginal value. It also begs the question: marginal value to whom? bureaucrats? a political “elite”? an underclass of slave laborers?

As originally stated, Tainter’s thesis could not be tested, at least with the conceptual tools provided in his volume. But even if, for the sake of argument, complexity in his terms could be defined and measured, a marginal value relationship would, at best, constitute but one “variable” — neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the many historical instances of political devolution. As we noted earlier, there is now strong evidence that, in many cases, precipitous socio-political collapses were directly attributable to such “exogenous” variables as conquests, epidemics, key resource depletions and drastic environmental changes, independently of any discernable political dynamic. Conversely, there are many other cases in which political devolution has occurred when the mission was accomplished; there was no longer a need and no potential for positive synergies (see below).

As a footnote, it should be noted that, in a recent, jointly-authored article (Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra 1999), the focus of Tainter’s paradigm is shifted from diminishing marginal returns to the political system to a broader economic calculus associated with the marginal returns from “extracting resources” or other societal benefits. This iteration represents a major change; it is much more compatible with the Synergism Hypothesis, where the burden of maintaining a political system is weighed against the underlying purposes of the system. Even a bloated, inefficient army will continue to be publicly supported if it effectively deters potential invaders, but the converse is far less likely to be the case.

Jared Diamond’s “Package” Approach

Jared Diamond’s recent study, Germs, Guns and Steel (1997), is focussed on explaining the rise of large complex civilizations over the past 13,000 years or so, but his explanatory framework is also relevant to the problem of explaining political devolution and collapse.

Very briefly, Diamond takes up the forbidding challenge of explaining not only how and why the evolutionary trend toward societal complexity occurred in humankind but also why it happened where and when it did and why it did not happen elsewhere, or elsewhen. A key aspect of Diamond’s approach, one that directly contradicts some of the deepest metatheoretical assumptions of the social sciences, is that it is not possible to explain these fundamentally historical phenomena in terms of some context-free, deterministic (law-like) “mechanism.” The evolutionary process, including the evolution of humankind, is inescapably historical in nature; context-dependent factors have played a crucial role in the process. What is required, Diamond says, is “a science of history.”

Accordingly, each major “breakthrough” in the evolution of complex societies, as well as each “replication” in some other geographic “venue,” was the result of a site-specific, synergistic nexus — a convergence of many “ultimate” and “proximate” factors (terms Diamond borrows from evolutionary biology but uses in a different sense). Diamond does not use the term synergy. He refers to a “package” of contributing factors. But the meaning is the same; each instantiation involved a combination of necessary and sufficient elements (see Figure 2).

Food production and the resulting surpluses was the key, Diamond argues, but this in turn depended upon many other factors. One important precursor was the prior emergence (as it were) of anatomically modern humans, including language skills and sophisticated cultural resources, by about 50,000 BP. Another factor was the decline and mass extinction of many of the large megafauna upon which evolving humans had depended, coupled with a rise in human population levels. This demand-supply imbalance created increasing pressure to find suitable supplements to the standard hunter-gatherer diet. 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 support for large, sedentary populations. Equally important, however, were such cultural inventions as food storage, draft animals, record-keeping and complex political organization. (Needless to say, this brief summary can hardly do justice to a much more elaborate synthesis.)

Rising to the Challenge of Decline

In applying the synergistic “package” approach to the reverse phenomenon of devolution, some additional, implicit factors must be added to Diamond’s package. What Diamond does not include is a more complete inventory of what is both necessary and sufficient to sustain a human society and its members over time, and this is where the “basic needs” (survival indicators) framework can be of use. The thesis, in a nutshell, is that all of the 14 basic needs mentioned earlier are prerequisites for the continued viability of a human population, and if any one or more of these needs are not met, the associated political system is likely to collapse. Conversely, a political system will devolve if it is no longer effective in meeting the needs (and wants) of those who have the power to support it, or eliminate it.

Furthermore, the challenge of meeting basic needs entails a multi-levelled hierarchy of causal factors, as illustrated in Figure 3. This hierarchy is defined (somewhat arbitrarily) in terms of the span of cybernetic control — from the piling up of little purposes in ecosystems (to borrow a term from Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan) to the potentially destructive power of large-scale human systems. The main point of this graphic, however, is to underscore the fact that many different factors interact in complex ways to affect the fate of a human population and its political system. (Note especially that the causal arrows in Figure 3 point in both directions.)

Although space does not permit a detailed discussion of this paradigm, perhaps we can illustrate with reference to a test-case of political devolution that does not on the surface seem to be related to the 14 basic needs and the functional imperatives of the collective survival enterprise. Such an example can be found in the “Balkanization” of the former Yugoslavia. Although it might be argued that there were no obvious survival threats to the population of that country — that their basic needs were adequately provided for — on closer inspection both the political union forged by Marshall Tito earlier in the 20th century and its recent fragmentation were driven by deep underlying functional/survival concerns.

A key to understanding the evolution-devolution of Yugoslavia lies in the fact that it represented a de facto forced alliance between historically antagonistic smaller units under a charismatic leader. Tito’s success was based on the shared objective of resisting a perceived external survival threat (a common enemy). However, the country was never fully integrated economically. Hence, when at long last the various external threats to the population dissolved, so did Yugoslavia’s functional foundation — its raison d’etre. In the process, historical hatreds and tensions among the nation’s constituent ethnic groups reemerged and became a serious internal physical threat. These antagonisms were allowed to erupt into major bloodshed, and the dynamic of devolution at the national level was exacerbated by a process of political mobilization and conflict among its “parts” — the ethnic constituencies. As the casualties have mounted, it has become painfully clear that physical survival is at issue for the parties to this conflict (however senseless it may seem) and that the political process has been driven by a life-and-death imperative.

How could this tragedy have been avoided? Setting aside the egregious failure of leadership and other contributing factors, true economic integration (interdependence) and/or a new external menace might have succeeded in holding this jury-rigged nation together.

The Devolution of the United States

A more benign, peaceable example of political devolution — theoretically significant because it exemplifies the many systems that are created to meet a defined, short-term goal — can be found in, of all places, the United States. Although the image of “Big Government” and the election campaign rhetoric about the Federal government as a “bloated bureaucracy” has been a pervasive theme in American politics over the past two decades, the reality is quite different if one contrasts the size and scope of the Federal government, and the level and intensity of cybernetic control over the population, in 1944 (at the height of World War Two) and in 1994, fifty years later.

World War Two is now only a dim memory, and the generation that fought the war is mostly gone. However, the conversion of the United States from a depression-plagued peacetime economy with a pitifully small military (350,000 in 1939) to a huge war machine (the “Arsenal of Democracy”) with 11.4 million uniformed military personnel and 3.3 million civilian government employees (compared to less than one million in 1939) is well documented.3 And this does not include the many millions of Americans who became directly involved in war production work (17 million new jobs were created during the war, a 34 percent increase in the labor force), plus the 10 million organized civilian volunteers of various kinds. In short, the war produced a radical economic, political and military transformation, a national mobilization (cybernation) at every level of society, and the degree of regimentation and control exerted over the population and the economy were totally unprecedented in the U.S. — before or since. To be sure, this massive undertaking succeeded only because the population was united against two formidable enemies and (by and large) willingly accepted the sacrifices and constraints that were imposed. Nevertheless, the changes were radical and convulsive.

Over a six year period the military inducted, trained, clothed, housed and fed a total of 15 million soldiers, sailors and airmen, including several million who were shipped overseas to fight on far flung battlefronts. In addition, the U.S. Lend-Lease Program provided (and delivered to its various allies, despite losses to enemy submarines) food and war materiel amounting to a total of $50 billion, or $435 billion in 1995 dollars. This part of the war effort alone dwarfs the lunar space program or the Desert Storm operation against Iraq. Indeed, the avalanche of wartime production produced, among other things, a cornucopia of statistics: 300,000 airplanes, 87,000 warships of all types, 88,000 tanks, 400,000 artillery pieces, 634,000 jeeps, 2.7 million machine guns, 7.3 million five-hundred-pound bombs, 25 billion rounds of .30-calibre ammunition, 57.5 million wool undershirts, 519 million pairs of socks, 116 million pounds of peanut butter, 15.6 million shaving brushes and 106.5 million tent pins, among many other items.

Needless to say, it is not feasible to measure directly the cybernetic aspects of this vast enterprise — the total volume of communications and control activities by the Federal government during 1944 (or any other year). Although archival materials and historical accounts do exist — in abundance — the task of tabulating them is so overwhelemingly large that it is obviously not practicable. Instead, we must rely on some surrogate statistics that, it is argued, are highly correlated with the relevant cybernetic processes. For instance, total Federal government employment, including military personnel, went from approximately one percent of the total population in 1939 to 10 percent in 1944. The Federal budget, likewise, went from $9 billion in 1939 (or 10% of the GNP) to $98.4 billion (or 46.8%). Meanwhile, the percentage of the economy that was directly engaged in war production went from less than 5 percent to over 40 percent.

The impact of the war on the U.S. economy and population in cybernetic terms are also well-documented. There were tight controls on prices, wages, rents, profits, raw materials, manufacturing, construction activity, transportation services, merchant shipping, and more. Some 20 major consumer items were strictly rationed, including gasoline, heating oil, meat, butter, sugar, tires, shoes and coffee. Many other items became scarce or simply disappeared from store shelves — liquor, soap, cigarettes, stockings, burlap, cotton, etc., — because available supplies were diverted for military use or the raw materials were used for military goods. Cars and other major appliances were also unavailable during the war; the manufacturers of non-essential consumer goods were mostly recruited for war production work. The press was also heavily censored, as were all overseas letters, and the scientific and educational establishments were both enlisted for war work of various kinds. (The budget for the Office of Scientific Research, for example, went from $74 million in 1940 to $1.6 billion in 1945.)

An “alphabet soup” of government agencies were created on a crash basis to oversee this mobilization process and do the cybernating. The Office of Price Administration, with 5,500 local boards and 60,000 employees, was the most intrusive. However, the War Production Board, the Office of Civilian Defense, the Office of War Information (censorship and propaganda), the Office of Defense Transportation, the Public Health Service and several other agencies collectively re-directed the entire economy and society. For instance, there was a huge increase in the need for overland transportation during the war. But fuel rationing drastically reduced the usage of trucks and cars. So people turned to using trains, and this put the nation’s railroad system under tremendous pressure. By 1945, passenger mileage alone had jumped to three times the pre-war level. The agency responsible for coping with this need was the newly created Office of Defense Transportation, which, in effect, commandeered the nation’s complex network of privately-owned rail companies for the duration.

But perhaps the most significant indicators of the increased level of Federal government control over the economy were the changes that occurred in the tax system. For the first time in U.S. history, the government mandated that income tax payments were to be withheld from paychecks and forwarded by employers directly to the Treasury. Taxes were also drastically increased (partly to finance the war but also as one means, among others, of drawing excess consumer demand out of the economy); the top (marginal) tax rate jumped to a confiscatory 94%. Federal government tax receipts in 1940 were $2.7 billion. In 1944 they had increased to $35.4 billion, more than 13 times the pre-war level.

Devolution by Design

Even before the war was over, the U.S. government began planning for “reconversion” to a peacetime economy. A special concern was how to meet the pent up demand for consumer goods, from automobiles to washing machines, without causing runaway inflation. (Despite the level of high taxes, liquid assets waiting to be spent had increased from $50 billion in 1941 to $140 billion in 1944.) So industries that were expected to experience a rapid surge in demand after the war were given a priority in shifting out of war production work. In this and many other areas, the government deliberately planned for a demobilization and downsizing (and a devolution of the Federal government’s role) that was not only successful but, despite the Cold War that followed, never reverted to anything approximating the broad scope and pervasive power that was exercised during World War Two.

Fifty years after the war ended, the statistics tell the story. Federal employment in 1994, including the military, amounted to 1.53 percent of the total U.S population, versus 10.7 percent during the war. In fact, the total number of civilian and military personnel in 1994 represented less than one-third the number in 1944 and was only one-half a percentage point higher than in 1939. Likewise, total Federal government outlays as a percentage of GDP amounted to 21.1%, less than half the 1944 GNP percentage (46.8%) and roughly equivalent to the percentage in 1939, after subtracting transfer payments for Social Security, welfare and the like, plus interest on the national debt (see Table 1). Moreover, the declines in Federal employment, expenditures and taxes are correlated with a drastic reduction in the degree of government control over the economy after the war. Again, the statistics that are available must serve as a surrogate.


In sum, the political devolution that occurred in the U.S. after World War Two fulfilled the theoretical expectation that political devolution can be the result either of success or failure. From a functional, synergy perspective, this duality is not at all paradoxical. No other theory that we are aware of can reconcile this seeming paradox.4

In Tainter’s original theory, the process of political collapse was seen as being governed by an internal cost-benefit calculus related to the burden of complexity itself. This can hardly account for what has happened to Yugoslavia, or to the U.S. during and after World War Two. In contrast, the Synergism Hypothesis posits that the fate of a political system is determined by the underlying functional processes (and results) to which it is related. Again, it is the functional synergies (the economics broadly defined) that are ultimately responsible both for the “progressive” evolution of more complex political systems and, in their absence, for the reverse dynamic of political “devolution.”

Accordingly, none of the long list of vanished polities, past or present, conforms to any rule — except one. The “rule” is, if a “collective survival enterprise” and its political system are unable to secure one or more of the basic survival needs for its members, the regime will in due course collapse or be replaced. Or, if there is no longer a functional need — whether it be a business-venture, or an earthquake, or a war — the political system that was created to serve that need will “devolve.” This is not exactly a revelation, but the framework of basic needs and the hierarchy of causation outlined above makes the argument more explicit (and testable) and enables us to see why all of the impressive scholarship on this issue has failed to deal with the inherent idiosyncracy of political devolution or to identify any universal doomsday scenario for human polities. There is none.

In sum, history matters, but so do the imperatives of survival and reproduction. Our basic biological needs profoundly shape our cultures, whether we are consciously aware of that fact or not. (This point is explored in depth in Corning 2000a.) And the synergy-minus-one test in fact identifies and makes explicit the implicit rationale that societies and their rulers/leaders utilize to prioritize their problems and allocate resources — whether it be a tsunami, a disease epidemic, a military threat, a drought, the depletion of a key resource, or an internal threat to the regime, and those who depend upon it for their survival and well-being. And if the history of the human species has been marked by many political failures as well as successes, the record suggests that the future will hold more of the same. This is not a counsel of despair but a call to acknowledge and, in defiance of tradition and our evolutionary heritage, to prepare for the challenges that future generations will inevitably face.

  1. Actually, the use of feedback mechanisms in technological systems dates back to antiquity (see O. Mayr 1970). However, Wiener provided a broader framework for understanding feedback processes in relation to goal-directed behaviors of all kinds. Contemporary theorists often distinguish between evolved, internal purposiveness (“teleonomy”) and an externally imposed purpose, or “teleology.” 
  1. Cybernetics is still far from realizing its full potential, however. For instance, it has been relatively little-utilized in the social sciences, despite the efforts of such theorists as Karl Deutsch (1963), David Easton (1965, 1993), William Powers (1973), James Grier Miller (1978) and the present author (1974, 1983, 1996b), among others. One reason for this shortfall, we believe, is that an important element was missing from Wiener’s original paradigm, and this omission has diminished its utility as an analytical tool outside of the “hard” sciences. Paralleling information theory pioneer Claude Shannon, Wiener used a statistical rather than a functional (content and meaning) approach to measuring information. A possible solution to this long-standing conundrum was recently proposed in Corning and Kline (1998a,b) and Corning (2000b) under the concept of “control information.” Control information is not a “thing” but an attribute of the relationship between things. It is defined as the capacity (know-how) to control the acquisition, disposition and utilization of matter/energy in purposive (cybernetic) processes.  Nevertheless, the concept can be formalized, as we show, and, more important, can be measured with precision in various ways. We suggest in our papers using the quantity of “available energy” that can be controlled by a given unit of information in a given context. 
  1. Sources used for the following discussion include Snyder (1960), Blum (1976), Harris et al. (1984), Sidey (1994), Historical Statistics of the United States (1975) and Statistical Abstract of the United States (1953, 1997). 
  1. One alternative approach to the explanation of political evolution should be mentioned briefly. Jong Heon Byeon (1999) has proposed that political change is a “self-organizing” process, with a “prevailing tendency” (along with all other “fundamental processes”) toward greater complexity. Over time, Byeon claims, entropy (defined as “disorder”) decreases and “order” (i.e., a patterning or thermodynamic order) increases. As noted elsewhere (Corning and Kline 1998a,b), this popular formulation (Byeon follows the lead of many other contemporary theorists) involves a serious and unwarranted conflation of energetic and physical order, a concept of complexity (order) that cannot be operationalized, the use of statistical information concepts from information theory that cannot be applied to cybernetic, feedback-controlled systems, and, most serious, a core premise that can readily be falsified. As noted earlier, modern evolutionary biologists find the postulate of an inherent, “orthogenetic” trend in evolution to be unsupportable and in fundamental conflict with Darwin’s theory. Indeed, if there is an inherent tendency toward political complexity, how can the many examples of political devolution be accounted for? The cybernetic, functional theory of political complexity and the Synergism Hypothesis predicts what will happen to a complex society that suffers a prolonged, severe drought. A thermodynamic theory cannot. 
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