Synergy: Another Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Published: 06/1998

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 French historian Jacques Pirenne wrote a majesterial volume that was translated and published in English as The Tides of History (1962). Political scientist Karl Deutsch also used it in the title of his classic text on the Tides Among Nations (1979).

More recently, an online search of the internet bookseller “” produced a total of 274 current titles that include the word “tides”. There are books on corporate tides, the tides of power, tides of migration, tides of change, the tides of reform, China against the tides, NATO and the tides of discontent, the tides of war, the tides of love, political tides in the Arab world and, of course, many volumes related to ocean tides.

Our everyday lives are also subject to tidal influences, especially in the business world, in the arts and in politics. This year’s fad is often next year’s “remainder” or “close-out” sale item. This year’s titantic blockbuster movie will be available for rental next year for a pittance. And this year’s hot political issue may be ignored by the media next year, even though the underlying problem still exists. President Clinton’s abortive health care proposal of 1993 is a good example.

Although we like to think that science is free from such “extraneous” influences, of course this is not so. Thomas Kuhn, in his celebrated volume on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1972) argued that science is very much influenced by the tidal effects associated with different “paradigms”. Ideas and theories that fit within or support the currently-dominant framework of basic assumptions and theories in a given discipline are more likely to be favorably received. On the other hand, conflicting work, especially if it challenges the dominant paradigm, is often ignored or rejected. Kuhn’s specific scenario for scientific revolutions has been much-debated. Nevertheless, there seems to be widespread agreement that Kuhn’s core idea is valid, even if the dynamics may be somewhat different from his original formulation.

A classic case in point is biologist Barbara McClintock’s work on the so-called “jumping genes” — genetic rearrangements during ontogeny via what are now called “transposons” (or transposable elements) that can produce variations in the phenotype of an organism (such as the different color patterns in maize). This phenomenon, painstakingly documented by McClintock over 20 years, remained in the shadows until late in her life. The reason was that it contradicted the then reigning “central dogma” of molecular biology — namely, that the genome is expressed during ontogenesis in a linear, deterministic fashion (DNA to RNA to proteins). Now, of course, it is recognized that ontogeny is a much more complex process and that a variety of non-linear, feedback-dependent influences may affect the outcome (see Keller 1983).

In a similar fashion, the dominant paradigm in the social sciences for the better part of this century utilized as its ground-zero premise (so to speak) the assumption that human behavior and cultural processes are “determined” by the socio-cultural environment, and that biological influences are largely irrelevant. According to the widely quoted dictum of Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology: “Every time that a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be sure that the explanation is false” (1895/1938, p. 104). Among the many consequences of this dogmatism was the fact that it created a wall of prejudice against any purported “facts” that conflicted with socio-economic and cultural explanations. Accordingly, Edward O. Wilson’s paradigm-shattering textbook, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) — was greeted by many mainstream social scientists with great hostility, which is not surprising; it threatened their core assumptions and challenged the hegemony of their explanatory apparatus. (The term sociobiology was actually coined by the pioneer biopsychologist John Paul Scott, but Wilson made it famous.)

Now it seems that another, somewhat less contentious tide-change is underway, one that is affecting both evolutionary biology and the social sciences. It is a shift that, hopefully, will result in a more balanced, multi-levelled, “interactional” perspective on the evolutionary process generally and the ongoing evolution of the human species in particular. Over much of the past 25 years, evolutionary theory has been dominated by the “selfish gene” (or Neo-Darwinian) paradigm, after biologist Richard Dawkins’s (1976/1989) famous book by that name. The selfish gene metaphor epitomizes a reductionist perspective in which atomistic individual competition is viewed as the predominant, if not exclusive, shaping force in evolution. In this view, cooperative phenomena are not only very limited in scope but are “reducible” to gene self-interest; “higher-level” cooperative relationships are even considered by some theorists to be epiphenomena that are not causally important in their own right.

Given this predisposition among many evolutionary theorists of the 1980s, a new theory about the role of synergy in evolution — about cooperative (interdependent) functional effects of various kinds as a causal “mechanism” in the evolution of complexity — was, in retrospect, launched on a strongly unfavorable tide. The theory was developed in a book-length monograph called The Synergism Hypothesis: A Theory of Progressive Evolution (McGraw-Hill 1983), and it was largely ignored or rejected at the time that it was published. Not only did this theory challenge the dominant Neo-Darwinian paradigm, shifting the focus from competition to cooperation (or, better said, competition via cooperation), but it directed our attention away from genes and stressed the functional dynamics of living systems at various levels of organization — that is, the functional effects produced by the “vehicles” (after Dawkins), the “interactors” (after David Hull), or simply the “phenotypes.” As a corollary, this theory also proposed to shift the explanatory focus to the “economics” of adaptation, survival, and reproduction.

Paradoxically, at the time this theory was first proposed, the concept of synergy was already widely used in biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and related disciplines. (A search of a biological data-base for the year 1988, using the keyword “synerg”, identified 613 references, of which 95% were related to these “hard” sciences.) By contrast, in evolutionary theory and the behavioral sciences the concept of synergy was largely ignored during those years — aside from a few eccentric uses by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, the engineer-inventor Buckminster Fuller and a handful of others.

But now there is every indication that the tide has turned. One early sign was the adoption of the synergy concept by biologist John Maynard Smith (1982, 1983, 1989), who developed a “synergistic selection” model to characterize the interdependent functional effects that may arise from altruistic cooperation. (Maynard Smith later broadened the concept to accord with a strictly functional interpretation, whether altruistic or not.) The work of political scientist Robert Axelrod and biologist William Hamilton (1981; also Axelrod 1984) on the evolution of cooperation, using the game theory methodology pioneered by Maynard Smith, was also important.

Another significant contribution was made by biologist Leo Buss in his 1987 book on the evolution of higher levels of organization, which invoked the concept of synergy, albeit in a narrow sense and without much elaboration. The biologically-oriented psychologist David Smillie (1993) has also utilized the concept of synergy in relation to 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 concept of group selection on a new footing (Wilson 1975, 1980; also Wilson and Sober 1994; Wilson and Dugatkin 1997). Although Wilson’s paradigm remains gene-centered, he stresses the role of what he calls a “shared fate” among individual cooperators, which implies a functional interdependency.

Especially important, however, is the work of biologist Lynn Margulis on the role of “symbiogenesis” in evolution (particularly in relation to the origins of eukaryotic cells). Now recognized as a major theoretical contribution, this concept has focussed our attention on an area in which synergistic functional effects have played a key role (see Margulis 1981,1993; Margulis and Fester 1991; Margulis and Sagan 1995). (Indeed, the relatively new discipline of endocytobiology — inspired in part by Margulis’s work but centered in Europe — is concerned especially with investigating symbiotic and synergistic phenomena of various kinds at the cellular level.)

But perhaps the most significant sign that a favorable tide now exists for the synergy concept is the book co-authored by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry on the evolution of complexity, The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995), which features the role of synergy at various levels of biological organization. Maynard Smith now recognizes the “universal” importance of functional synergy (personal communication), as does Ernst Mayr (personal communication). Nowadays, articles about synergy in evolution are also routinely accepted for publication, whereas 15 years ago they were routinely rejected.

Nowadays “complexity” is also recognized to be a distinct “emergent” phenomenon that requires higher-level explanations. In fact, there is a rapidly growing literature in complexity theory — much of it powered by the mathematics of non-linear dynamical systems theory — which is richly synergistic in character; it is primarily concerned with collective properties and collective effects. To be sure, much (but not all) of the work in complexity theory involves a radically different view of the evolutionary process from the functional, selectionist paradigm within which the synergism hypothesis fits. For instance, the biophysicist Stuart Kauffman’s work (e.g., 1993, 1995) is directed toward trying to identify deterministic “laws” of biological order. His metatheoretical premise is that much of the order found in nature is self-organized — “order for free” as he puts it. (Ultimately, I believe that both self-organizing influences and synergistic functional influences will be recognized as important “mechanisms” in the evolution of complex systems.)

Even the concept of “progressive evolution” — lately denigrated as an outmoded idea (see especially Nitecki 1988; Gould 1996) — has been resuscitated, most recently by John Stewart (1997) in the preceding issue of this journal. Stewart proposes that progressive evolution, meaning the trend toward the emergence of “higher” levels of organization, has been catalyzed and sustained by the functional advantages of cooperation and the ability of “managers” to control cheaters and free riders. Stewart boldly projects this process forward with a futuristic vision of government on a “planetary scale.”

So, the question is, will the rising tide lead on to fortune for the concept of synergy? A firm prediction would be risky, of course, but there do seem to be a number of favorable indications. One is that Maynard Smith and Szathmáry will soon publish a volume that strongly supports the theoretical importance of the synergy concept. Several of this author’s recent publications (see especially Corning 1995, 1996a,b, 1997), as well as some work currently in preparation, are also seeking to advance the synergism hypothesis.

Another positive development is the growing number of field research programs in the behavioral sciences, especially in behavioral ecology, that are explicitly looking for, and finding, synergy. For instance, Gordon (1987) observed “synergistic interactions” among three major activities in colonies of red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) in response to various perturbations. Santillán-Doherty and his colleagues (1991), in a study of stump-tailed macaques (Macaca arctoides), found non-linear synergistic effects among three variables — kinships, sex and rank — in shaping the behavioral interactions among the animals in their study population. And Packer and Ruttan (1988) also explicitly recognized the role of synergy in cooperative hunting. They observed that, when individual hunting success is already high, there is little to be gained by cooperating. Cooperation depends upon synergy — an increase in the average individual feeding efficiency through joint efforts. “An increase in hunting success with group size therefore indicates synergism from cooperation, whereas a decrease indicates some form of interference [negative synergy]” (1988:183).

Finally, there is a recognition, only now beginning to emerge, that synergistic functional effects are a fundamental aspect of virtually every scientific discipline. The reason why the universality of this functional principle was not widely appreciated in the past is that synergy has travelled under many different aliases, including emergent effects, cooperativity, symbiosis, a division of labor (or, more precisely, a combination of labor), epistasis, threshold effects, phase transitions, coevolution, heterosis, dynamical attractors, holistic effects, mutualism, complementarity, even interactions and cooperation.

Of course, it is one thing to recognize synergy as a ubiquitous phenomenon. It is another thing to assign to it a major causal/explanatory role in various domains, particularly biological evolution, human evolution and the evolution of complex societies. This is what the “synergism hypothesis” encompasses, and the case for this theory, along with an argument for using synergy as a unifying concept in the sciences, will be presented in a forthcoming issue of this journal.

References/Bibliography Available Upon Request

Category: Publications