Synergy and the Systems Sciences

Prepared for the International Society for the Systems Sciences,
and the Systems Sciences Primer (1996)

Although its role is often unappreciated, synergy can be considered one of the core concepts of the systems sciences. Indeed, synergy is a ubiquitous phenomenon in nature and human societies alike. Here I will briefly discuss one aspect of the relationship between the two.

Our starting point is the insight that a fundamental property of the universe is functional relationships involving two or more “objects,” along with the fact that the systems science pioneers of the 1950s were comfortable with using this broad formulation as a generic definition of a “system” (Hall and Fagan 1956). The problem with such a universalistic conceptualization, as the founding fathers well appreciated, was that it most likely precluded any general theory that would be applicable to all systems, so defined (Bertalanffy 1956; Boulding 1956; Ashby 1958; Rapoport 1968).

Accordingly, the founding fathers stressed that the term “general” in general systems theory referred to theories about systems as such. (Boulding characterized the general systems paradigm as the “skeleton” of a science.) These broadly educated theorists were well aware of the rather significant differences between, say, a solar system, an ecosystem and the living systems that are elucidated in James G. Miller’s definitive framework (Miller 1995[1978]). Their objective was to create a science of wholes, a science that would focus on systems and their properties as a complement, not an alternative, to the analytical, “dissectionist” strategies that had come to predominate, and still do, in the “hard” sciences. They never espoused and, indeed, were quite skeptical about the possibility that there would ever be a scientific “theory of everything.” (They were happy to leave such hubris to the well-funded young turks of theoretical physics.) On the other hand, they did hope eventually to develop a taxonomy of system types, and they did not preclude the possibility that there might in due course emerge a theory, or theories relating to some common property or aspect of systems generally, or that there might be general theories about a particular class or type of systemic phenomena. And that is where synergy comes into the picture.

Scientific progress often occurs when somebody asks a question that nobody had posed before, or that it perhaps did not appear feasible to study before (or that it was not “politically correct” to study). For reasons that are frankly obscure to me, the systems science pioneers were very slow to address the question: Why do living systems exist? And why has there been a pronounced evolutionary trend over the past 3.5 billion years or so toward more complex systems? Until quite recently, the systems sciences had a curiously ahistorical world view and seemed uninterested in the problems of phylogeny. In this case, it was not because nobody had ever thought about the question before. For starters, there was Darwin’s theory. There was also the more encompassing theory developed by the 19th century polymath Herbert Spencer, who had posited a universal “law of evolution” that purported to explain the evolutionary trend from energy to life, to mind, to society and, finally, to complex civilizations. In “The Development Hypothesis” (1892[1852]), Spencer characterized evolution as “a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity through continuous differentiations [and integrations].” Although such grand schemata were popular in the 19th century, they fell into disfavor in the early years of this century. After a brief flurry of interest in “emergent evolution” (e.g., Morgan 1923), evolutionary biologists lost interest in accounting for complexity as a general property of living systems. With the rise of population genetics during the 1920s and the achievement of the so-called “modern synthesis” in the 1930s, evolutionists concentrated their efforts on developing support for the incremental, “gradualist” paradigm espoused by Darwin himself. It was only in the 1980s that the evolution of complexity per se reemerged as a broad theoretical concern.

Currently, there are at least two alternative hypotheses about the evolution of complex systems. One might be labelled “neo-Spencerian” while the other can be characterized as “post-neo-Darwinian.” (For a more extended discussion, see Corning 1995.) The better known approach, perhaps because it lends itself to mathematical modelling with the new generation of super-computers and dynamical systems models (and perhaps also because it has been heavily promoted), postulates a self-organizing, law-like process — in the manner of Herbert Spencer (see Kauffman 1993). The alternative hypothesis, proposed in Corning (1983) and supported by the independent work of Maynard Smith and Szathmáry (1995) (see also the contribution by Bonner 1988), asserts that the evolution of complexity has involved a cumulative, historically contingent functional selection process (in accordance with a proper understanding of Darwin’s often misunderstood and caricatured theory), and that synergistic phenomena have played a key causal role in this directional trend. That is, synergistic effects of various kinds have been a prodigious source of evolutionary creativity. To state the hypothesis explicitly, it is the selective advantages associated with various forms of synergy that have been responsible for the “progressive” evolution of complex, functionally organized biological and social systems; underlying each of the many steps in the complexification process, a common functional principle has been at work. (Synergy in this context refers to co-operative effects, the effects produced by two or more elements, parts or individuals; synergistic effects are always co-determined and interdependent.) In other words, the functional effects produced by co-operating “objects” — literally, things that operate together — have themselves been the very cause of the trend toward more complex systems; in evolutionary processes, effects are also causes. (This is, of course, a bare-bones rendering of a much more elaborate argument.)

What are some of the implications of the “synergism hypothesis”? First and foremost, this theory views the search for an underlying law, or laws of history to be chimerical. This ancient conceit overlooks a fundamental property of the natural world, namely its historicity. The synergism hypothesis asserts that the causal dynamics underlying both the continuities and changes that can be observed in the character and patterning of the earth’s biota over time have involved situation-specific, contingent, and interdependent configurations of matter-energy-information (synergies). This theory posits that the dynamics and cumulative history of the process itself have been of fundamental causal significance and that the laws of physics (and biophysics), though they may illuminate important constraints and determinants, will prove insufficient to encompass this aspect of the process. In other words, history matters. (Indeed, it is well known that the laws of physics provide an incomplete description of reality, because they cannot account for time.)

A second implication is that we must learn to take seriously the contingent and interdependent nature of causation in complex systems. Some “thought experiments” may perhaps illustrate both of these properties: Imagine what would happen if one were to remove a leg from a three-legged stool, or a wheel from an automobile, or a gene from the homeobox gene complex, or the quarterback from an (American) football team, or the mitochondria from a eukaryotic cell, or the water supply from any human settlement. One could go on indefinitely. The point is that we are able to appreciate the hypothetical consequences of these thought experiments because we intuitively understand the interdependent nature of the systems to which they refer and the combined effects they produce. As a rule, we tend to take these things for granted, until something goes wrong.

A third implication is that the various collections of interacting parts we call systems not only produce synergies but these synergies have in turn become important sources of causation in furthering the evolutionary process. To cite an example: the organelles which comprise eukaryotic (nucleated) cells are together (and only together) able to endow the “whole” with functional properties that have enabled eukaryotes to serve as the basic building blocks for a new level of biological complexification which would not otherwise have been possible. (Among other things, the eukaryotes as a class are about 15 times more efficient at processing energy than are the prokaryotes.) In fact, not a single complex multi-cellular species consists of prokaryotes. Likewise, the 15-20,000 parts which comprise a modern automobile (compared to the 443 that were needed for a 1901 curved-dash Olds) have, through their combined, synergistic effects (and their ever-growing numbers), become an important influence in shaping human economic activity and human culture world wide, not to mention their far-reaching impacts on land use, resource consumption and the natural environment.

There are many other implications, but I will mention only one more in connection with this brief synopsis. It has to do with the long-standing epistemological debate between reductionists and holists, or analytical and systems thinkers. The synergism hypothesis requires us to focus on both wholes and parts. In evolutionary processes (both biological and sociocultural/technological), parts and wholes exert mutual and reciprocal causal influences on one another. Over the course of time, evolving parts are shaped by their functional relationships to, and their selective influences on, the performance of wholes — and vice versa. In Roger Sperry’s original formulation, there is both “upward” and “downward” causation. Indeed, the very distinction between wholes and parts may sometimes impede our understanding of their interactional dynamics. While the Holy Grail of complexity theory is the aspiration for a deterministic law, or laws, of evolution, the “synergy paradigm” offers an explanatory principle which, like the concept of natural selection, provides only a conceptual umbrella (albeit a capacious one) for analyzing the myriad of situation-specific real-world examples, each of which has its own unique, irreducible parts-whole relationship.

Is “prediction” possible within this paradigm? The answer, in short, is that many kinds of limited, contingent (if-then) predictions and “tests” are possible (these are discussed at length elsewhere). However, this theoretical formulation also precludes making overarching forecasts about the future course of the evolutionary process. There are a great many unknown (and many more probably unknowable) factors, including new synergies (new combinations of things) that cannot be foretold. Indeed, we are blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) to be fellow participants in an open-ended adventure in which our own actions, or inactions, may well affect the outcome. Thus, while the neo-Spencerian and post-neo-Darwinian hypotheses may be viewed as being complementary in some respects (see Corning 1995), they represent ultimately competing visions of our evolutionary future; while both paradigms may be relevant for the systems sciences, their underlying dynamics are postulated to be quite different.

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