Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind

© Cambridge University Press, 2003


Two are better than one, because they have good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12


Nature's Way Book CoverThe thesis of this book, in brief, is that synergy — a vaguely familiar term to many of us — is actually one of the major organizing principles of the natural world. It has been a wellspring of creativity in evolution and has played central role in the evolution of complexity, from the subject-matter of physics and chemistry to human societies. The “Synergism Hypothesis” asserts that synergy is not simply a class of interesting and ubiquitous effects; it has also been a major causal agency in evolution. Synergistic functional effects of various kinds have been a necessary, if not sufficient, requisite for the evolution of cooperation and complexity at all levels of biological organization. It is a unifying theory of complexity.

This theory is not as radical or revolutionary as it sounds. It is fully consistent with Darwin’s theory, and with the canons of physics, chemistry, the biological sciences and the social sciences. It is also compatible with “symbiogenesis,” “multilevel selection theory” and other recent formulations that are concerned with cooperative relationships in nature. In effect, the Synergism Hypothesis involves a different perspective, a different way of viewing the same phenomena. It is quintessentially an economic (or “bioeconomic”) theory of complexity — a functional theory, as distinct from gene-centered theories, or postulates of self-organization and emergent “laws” of complexity, or even theories of historical contingencies (a “drunkard’s walk”). Moreover, this theory is testable and lends itself to falsifiable predictions.

Nature’s Magic provides a brief survey of the many different kinds of synergy in nature and develops the case for the Synergism Hypothesis in some detail. The theory is then applied specifically to the evolution of humankind and complex human societies.


“An extraordinary tour-de-force….Corning is one of the most erudite thinkers in systems biology. His original synergism hypothesis, posed in 1983, attracted little attention but had profound implications for many areas of biology and particularly evolutionary studies. Like all good systems, the context has now changed and Corning’s thesis has come in from the cold. Suddenly and obviously synergism is everywhere and Corning’s book expounds this crucial idea in brilliant fashion.

Prof. Anthony Trewavas, FRS, Institute of Cell & Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh

“Nature’s Magic is must reading for all who are interested in understanding the evolutionary process generally, as well as human evolution and evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour. It will stimulate, provoke, and challenge researchers in many fields and, hopefully, provide improved insights into the workings of nature and the evolutionary process…Nature’s Magic is one of the rare books which really makes you see reality in a new way.

Iver Mysterud, Department of Biology, University of Oslo, Norway, review for TREE.

“Corning’s new book makes for enjoyable reading, with clear, lucid, and transparent formulations, imaginative metaphors and similes, an encyclopedic scope, and a high ‘convincibility factor.’ There is only one thing wrong with a book like this for a reviewer like me: every page contains at least one passage or paragraph which begs to be quoted…Far from being the umpteenth “theory of everything,” Corning’s magnificent book presents an invitation to look at ‘everything’ in a novel and fresh way”

Prof. Johan M.G. van der Dennen, University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

“I like this book. It’s exciting, well-documented, and well-argued. It’s very informative both for professional biologists and well-read lay people; it will change their minds and get them to see synergies everywhere.”

Professor Jack Cohen, Warwick University.

“If you are under the impression that synergy is not particularly important, just try to tie your shoes with a single hand. The book will appeal to anyone interested in the place of evolutionary thinking in general intellectual culture. It will also be esteemed a particularly valuable contribution to the emerging discipline of bioeconomics.”

Professor Michael Ghiselin, California Academy of Sciences.

“This is a marvelous book, which will change your perception of reality, of how things work and act together. Corning’s central claim…is that synergy…complements our contemporary scientific world view. Moreover, the concept of synergy is more tangible than the rather fuzzy concept of ‘self-organization’… 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…I believe this book has the potential of becoming a classic in complexity-studies.”

Taede Smedes, Groningen, the Netherlands (review for

Corning’s goal is to explain complexity, the most basic weakness of orthodox Darwinism. The way he does it is essentially to change the way we see nature, particularly the way we assume things interact with each other….Corning supplies a fresh way of looking at the whole puzzle of complexity, one complementary to but more precise than ‘self-organization.’ He does this by reversing the usual logic about cooperation in living things…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…Corning indeed bolsters aspects of the case made by some of the ‘heretics’ of classical evolutionary theory…but with the power of his new framework, he ties many of their best ideas together in an ingenious way that preserves the central insight of biology since Darwin, the role of natural selection in the history of living things.  Peter Corning is one of those at the very forefront of the new model of systems thinking in biology, and Nature’s Magic is sure to be one of its cornerstones. Because it is so lucid and well-written, I can recommend it not only to academics in a wide range of fields 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.”

Todd Stark, Philadelphia (review for



I.  Prologue: The New Evolutionary Paradigm

What is Synergy? – The Causal Role of Synergy – Synergy in Evolution – The Synergistic Ape – The Perils of Prediction

II.  The “Enchanted Loom”

A Golden Tapestry of Synergies — Technology as Synergy — Synergies ‘R’ Us — The Varieties of Synergy: Synergies of Scale — Threshold Effects — Phase Transitions — Gestalt Effects — Functional Complementarities — Emergent Phenomena — Augmentation or Facilitation — Environmental Conditioning — Risk- and Cost-Sharing — A Combination of Labor — Information-Sharing — Convergent (Historical) Effects — Synergy is Everywhere

III.  The Magic Castle

The Big Whoosh — Enter Synergy — The Synergy in Gravity — Fusion and Synergy — Chemistry as Synergy — The Anthropic Principle — Architectonics in Cosmic Evolution — The Wizardry of Nature — Catch 22 and the Synergy of RNA – The Evidence From Stromatolytes — Symbiosis as a form of Synergy — Eukaryotes are Us — “Symbiogenesis” — The Economics of Symbiosis — Multicellular Synergy — Cambrian Synergy — Social Synergy — Synergy in Ecosystems — An Oasis of Synergy — Synergy in the Biosphere — Good Gaia! — The Whole Shebang

IV.  Black Magic

Negative Synergy is Not an Oxymoron — “Dysergy” in Cyberspace — Threshold Effects — Negative Social Synergy — The Titanic Effect — Synergy Minus One — Synergy Goes to War — Y2K: A Close Call — The Paradox of Dependency — Devolution as a Loss of Synergy — A Biblical Example — The Rise and Fall of Rome — Pox Romana — The Lessons of History — High and Low Synergy — Negative Synergy in Nature

V.  The Synergism Hypothesis

Why Not Synergy? — The Vicissitudes of Synergy — The Ideological Debate About Evolution — A Favorable Tide? — Where is Natural Selection? — The Causes of Evolution – The Synergism Hypothesis — Synergy and the Evolution of Complexity — The Selfish Genome — Seeing With New Eyes — Growing Support for This Theory — The Economics of Synergy — Cooperation Versus Competition — Testing for Synergy — Neo-Darwinism Compared — Egoistic Cooperation — Game Theory Revisited — Other Problems — Synergistic Selection — A Stalking Horse — Turning the Necker Cube – Weighing the Synergism Hypothesis — Consider the Alternatives — Holistic Darwinism: The New Evolutionary Paradigm

VI.  The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Lamarck’s Vision — Organic Selection — The “Pacemaker” of Evolution — Legendary Learners — The “Sentient Symphony” — Tool Using Synergy — Lamarck’s Ghost — Evolution on Purpose — Chance, Necessity and Teleonomy — “Downward Causation” — Selfish Memes? – “Feedback” [Sic] — “Neo-Lamarckian Selection” — A Two-Way Street — Neo-Lamarckian Selection and Human Evolution

VII.  Conjuring Human Evolution: The Synergistic Ape

A Wealth of Scenarios — The Killer Ape — Food Sharing — The Nuclear Family — The Synergism Hypothesis and Human Evolution — What was the Context? — Primate Pre-adaptations — Australopithecine Synergy — A Division of Labor — Tools and Synergy — Hard Evidence for Soft Technologies — The Social Triad — Homo Intermedius — A Technological Revolution — A Neo-Lamarckian Process — A Hotbed of Synergy — Culture, Language and Synergy — Homo Symbolicus — Language as a Prime Mover? — Language as an Invention — Alternative Paths to Modern Humans — The Synergistic Package — Prehistoric Warfare? — An Illustration: The Rise of the Zulu Nation — Occam’s Razor Revisited — The Synergistic Species

VIII.  Conjuring Our Past: Does Cultural Evolution Have an “Arrow”?

An Ancient Idea — The Age of Spencer — A Passel of Prime Movers — The Social Conflict School — Technological Determinism — What is Technology? — Sunflower Oil — The Automobile Revolution — Technology and The Synergism Hypothesis — Down With Prime Movers! — A Trajectory Without an Arrow — Synergy in Cultural Evolution — Synergy in Settlements — The Agricultural “Revolution” — Synergy in Chiefdomships and States — The Paradox of Dependency — Upward and Onward?

IX.  The Science of History

Pythagoras and “The Music of the Spheres” — The Neo-Pythagoreans — The Quest for Laws of History — The Law of Evolution? — Order for Free? — The Law of Higglety Pigglety — Is the Science of History an Oxymoron? — Molecular Computers — Simple Models and the Hierarchy of Nature — The Causal Role of Synergy in Evolution — Architectonics and the Evolution of Complexity — An Unfinished Symphony

X.  Conjuring the Future: What Can We Predict?

The Logic of Synergy — The Logic of Failure — The Perils of Prediction — So What Can We Predict? — Cassandra Meets Pollyanna — Synergy and the Fate of Humankind — Tying up the Loose Threads — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Revisited

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