INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW, 17(1), 1996
The tumultuous political events of the past decade or so have, among other things, compelled political scientists to rethink some of their long established concepts and analytical constructs. One example is “political development,” a term which has traditionally been associated with the optimistic post-World War Two scenario in which “developing nations” were said to be following “industrial societies” into a final stage of “post-industrial” history that would, presumably, be permanently embalmed in stable democracy and some variant of the traditional “balance of power” — or terror. That smug scenario has been deflated by a sequence of events which suggest that the modern nation-state may itself be a transient phenomenon, a stepping-stone on the way to something larger, or smaller, or both — or perhaps neither.
One indication of a sea-change in the discipline is a growing interest in the concept of “political evolution.” (See, for example, the report of a workshop on the subject edited by Modelski, 1994a.) This seemingly innocuous linguistic shift is not merely a fad, or a borrowed metaphor, but the reflection of a fundamental paradigm shift. It represents a revisioning of our conception of macro-level political change. In this nascent new paradigm — which has yet to be fully articulated, much less agreed upon — political development can be viewed as analogous to political “engineering” — the construction of a viable political process or structure more or less from pre-existing plans. Political evolution, on the other hand, is located at the creative cutting-edge, where old problems are solved with new techniques or new forms of organization, and where new problems are brought under political control. Also, following Charles Darwin’s broad definition of evolution as “descent with modification,” political evolution may include systemic reconfigurations, reorderings and even breakdowns. Accordingly, it can be said that political development is to political evolution as ontogeny is to phylogeny. (See Corning and Hines 1988.)
Some years ago, Kenneth Waltz (1975) drew a useful distinction between a political system and what he called a “political market,” the latter being a collection of independent actors in a “framework” of forces, with varying relationships and with varying degrees of interaction. For reasons that will become evident below, I prefer the term “political ecosystem.” But, in any event, the distinction is an important one, especially in international politics, because it highlights the fact that political evolution also involves irreversible historical changes in the character of the global system. However, it should also be emphasized that political evolution is not simply another name for political history. To the contrary, it connotes a patterned process whose causal dynamics are amenable to theoretical generalizations, to causal theories.
One implication of an evolutionary perspective is that short-range issues (say, the future of Eastern Europe or the prospects for European Union) can usefully be viewed within a much broader theoretical framework. An evolutionary framework can — and should — encompass, among other things, the evolution of other social species, the three-million-year process of human evolution and the evolution of complex human societies and polities over the past 10,000 years or so, long before the modern nation-state was even conceived. In addition, as we shall see, an evolutionary paradigm must take account of the propensities of “human nature” and the opportunities and constraints (and imperatives) in the natural environment, along with the traditional social, economic and political variables. Such a paradigm provides a far richer perspective for theorizing about political change in the immediate past, present or future. (I will elaborate on this contentious point below.)
Over the past two decades, a number of political scientists have become conversant with this broader evolutionary paradigm. (The full version of this paper included some 32 references.) Equally important, a variety of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the process of political evolution, either as a whole or in part. For example, Gary R. Johnson (1992) proposes what could be called a sociobiological hypothesis to account for the origin of human polities. Politics, in his view, is derivative of reproductive competition, and the advancement of various co-operative efforts is seen as secondary, in terms of the functional basis of government, to the containment of individual conflicts. Johnson also adopts the sociobiological assumption that there are only three bases for social organization, all of them derived from individual reproductive interests, namely, altruism (or nepotism toward closely-related individuals), reciprocity and exploitation. Nepotistic “kin selection,” he argues, was the “primary force” responsible for establishing societies and polities.
A second hypothesis has been suggested by Gebhard Geiger (1988). His theoretical focus is confined to the Weberian transformation of small face-to-face societies into large-scale, hierarchical, bureaucratic states (“macrostructures”). He is concerned with explaining the evolution of “political power” — i.e., specialized instruments of centralized control that are endowed with the ability to use force. Geiger argues that this transition requires a theory that goes beyond neo-Darwinian “inclusive fitness” models, because these explanations are not sufficient to account for various factors in real-world human polities. Specifically, he claims that hierarchical organizations in human societies are not an adaptation and are not designed to engender mutual benefits for their members. Accordingly, Geiger proposes that the explanation for such political macrostructures lies in an extension of the theory of “self-organizing” dynamical systems (see Footnote 2). That is, the properties of “natural self-organization” are postulated by Geiger to engender “structural stability” in a dynamical system, including large-scale polities.
A number of theorists have adopted a micro-level approach to political evolution. The pioneer in this area was biologist John Maynard Smith (1982), who was the first to apply classical “game theory” models to the problem of explaining social evolution. Maynard Smith’s focus was the strategies pursued by individuals in a population, and his objective was to identify co-operative strategies for the members of the population as a whole that could not be “invaded” or replaced by exploitative strategies. Such strategies were then characterized as being “evolutionarily stable.”
An important alternative to this approach, with direct implications for political evolution, was developed by political scientist Robert Axelrod and biologist William Hamilton (1981; also Axelrod 1984). It involved a revised version of the famous two-person “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, incorporating a number of more realistic assumptions about the nature of the game and the players. Axelrod and Hamilton then conducted a tournament among a number of their colleagues. The winning strategy, submitted by Anatol Rapaport, was called “TIT FOR TAT” (co-operate initially then respond to whatever the other player does in subsequent rounds), and it proved to be remarkably robust as a generator of co-operative behaviors among individual players. Among other things, it was found that (1) co-operation can get started even in a world that may also favor “defectors”; (2) it can also thrive in an environment where many other strategies are also being tried; and (3) it can resist invasion by less co-operative strategies. “Thus,” Axelrod concluded, “the gear wheels of social evolution have a ratchet” (1984:20).
Other theorists have focussed on political evolution at the most inclusive macro-level. George Modelski is concerned with the evolution of the “global political system” over the past 1000 years. He is well-known for a theory of “Long Cycles” in world history, which he conceptualizes as a “learning process” (Modelski 1987). In his earlier work, he envisioned “waves of innovation” coupled with a recurrence of wars and periods of political hegemony in apparently repetitive patterns. More recently, Modelski (1994b) has more firmly embraced an evolutionary paradigm. He now characterizes global history as a process involving “structural change” and “directionality” along a steady “path”. He speaks also of the “mechanisms” of “variation, and innovation, co-operation and reinforcement.” Yet, at the same time, he envisions the global process as an “unfolding” according to an “inner logic,” and he quotes the systems theorist cum evolutionist Ervin Laszlo: “Evolution is not an accident but occurs whenever certain parametric requirements have been fulfilled” (1994:13).
There are also various “coercive theories” of political evolution. The so-called “warfare hypothesis” is a perennial favorite, dating back at least to Thucidides’ great History of the Peloponnesian War. Likewise, Clausewitz’s On War  remains one of the classic statements on the subject. Darwin, Herbert Spencer and an assortment of 19th and early 20th century Social Darwinists also singled out the role of war in human evolution. (For a succinct review, see van der Dennen 1991.) More recently, anthropologist Robert Carneiro (1970) advanced a theory of war based on “environmental circumscription” — a refinement of pioneer sociologist William Graham Sumner’s “man/land ratio” — to account specifically for the formation of early states. The theory is concerned with the relationship between populations and resource constraints, particularly arable land.
There is also the “balance of power” hypothesis of, among others, Arthur Keith (1947), Robert Bigelow (1969) and sociobiologist Richard Alexander (1979). The core idea is that, over time, human polities have grown progressively larger primarily in order to strengthen themselves against other human groups. Alexander envisions a three-stage process, including: (1) the formation of multi-male bands mainly for protection against large predators, (2) a combination of defense against predation and group hunting, and (3) a combination of anti-predation, group hunting and competition/conflict with other human groups. Moreover, as populations grew, warfare with other groups came to predominate over other forms of co-operation. Warfare, he claims, is both the necessary and sufficient cause of large-scale human societies.
In contrast, Roger Masters (1989) has adopted an eclectic approach to political evolution, one which skillfully melds contemporary sociobiological models of individual interests (inclusive fitness), theories of intra-group co-operation and theories of inter-group conflict.
In this paper, I will offer a summary (and update) of a radically different theory of political evolution, one which dovetails with a larger, interdisciplinary enterprise focussed on the evolution of complexity in general. To be precise, this theory is a special case of a more general theory about the evolution of biological and social systems. It also involves a major shift in methodology and, it may not be too much to say, in our vision of how the world works. (For in-depth treatments, see Corning 1983, 1994; also see 1971a,b, 1974, 1977, 1987). The key features of this theory are the concept of synergy and the utilization of a cybernetic model of biological, social and political systems and processes.
The Ubiquity of Synergy
It has always seemed to me ironic that we are surrounded and sustained by synergistic phenomena — combined, or “co-operative” effects that can only be produced by two or more component parts, elements or individuals — yet we do not, most of us, seem to appreciate its importance. We take its routine miracles for granted, despite the fact that we depend upon it in a myriad of ways for our survival and reproduction, and so do all other living things. Synergy is literally everywhere around us, and within us; it is unavoidable.1 Here are just a few examples:
- About 2,000 separate enzymes are required to catalyze a metabolic web. But if you were to remove one of the more critical of these enzymes, say the hexokinase that facilitates glycolysis, the process would not go forward.
- Water has a unique set of emergent, combinatorial properties that are radically different from those of its two constituent gases. But if you simply mix the two gases together without a catalyst like platinum, you will not get the synergy.
- Our written language, with over 300,000 words, is based on various combinations of the same 26 letters. Thus, the letters “o,” “p” and “t” can be used to make “top”, “pot”, “opt” and “p.t.o.” (paid time off). But if you remove the vowel, there will be no “pattern recognition” in the reader’s mind.
- The humble clay brick is used to make a great variety of useful structures — houses, walls, factories, jails, roads, watchtowers, fortifications, even kilns for making more bricks. Truly a synergistic technology. But without mortar and human effort (and a plan), you will have only a pile of bricks.
- A modern automobile is composed of roughly 15,000 precisely-designed parts, which are derived from some 60 different materials. But if a wheel is removed, this incredible machine will be immobilized.
- The African honey guide is a bird with a peculiar taste for bees’ wax, a substance that is more difficult to digest even than cellulose. Moreover, in order to obtain bees’ wax, the honey guide must first locate a hive then attract the attention of and enlist a co-conspirator, the African badger (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. However, this unusual example of co-operative predation between two different species in reality depends upon a third, unobtrusive co-conspirator. It happens that honey guides cannot digest bees’ wax. They are aided by a parasitic gut bacterium which produces an enzyme that can break down wax molecules. So this improbable but synergistic feeding relationship is really triangular. And, needless to say, the system would not work if any of the partners, for whatever reason, withdrew (Bonner 1988).
- Economist Adam Smith’s classic description in The Wealth of Nations (1964 ) of an eighteenth century pin factory is often cited as an example of the “division of labor.” Smith observed that 10 laborers, by dividing up the various tasks associated with making pins, were able collectively to produce about 48,000 pins per day. However, Smith opined that if each laborer were to work alone, doing all of the tasks independently, it was unlikely that on any given day the factory would be able to produce even a single pin per man.
Synergy is not a peripheral phenomenon associated only with drug interactions or corporate mergers. Though it often travels in disguise, synergy can be found in the subject-matter of most, if not all, of the academic disciplines. In physics, it is associated with the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, as well as with superconductivity, synchronous light emissions (lasers) and such esoteric molecular phenomena as scale effects. Indeed, the periodic table of elements is a monument to the many forms of synergy that are responsible both for the naturally occurring stable elements and for the more unstable, transitory creations of modern physics; various combinations of atomic building-blocks produce substances with very different “emergent” properties. Even the “chaotic” phenomena that have been intensively researched by physicists and mathematicians in recent years exhibit many forms of synergy.
Biochemistry and molecular biology are also rife with synergy. Living matter, at least in the form we know, is composed mainly of a few key constituents — carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and energy. In various configurations these constituent parts have produced a wondrous array of emergent products, perhaps 10-20 million different species — nobody really knows (May 1992). By the same token, as we all know, the DNA that is used to write the genetic code consists of only four nucleotide “letters”. With this modest alphabet, evolution has been able to fashion a human genome with perhaps 100,000 genes. During ontogeny, our genome is able to fabricate co-operatively an incredible emergent product composed of an estimated 500 trillion cells of about 250 different types (Guyton 1991; Dulbecco 1991).
Many individual organisms, from bacteria to humans, also engage in internal or external symbiosis — synergistic relationships with “dissimilar” organisms — a subject that will be discussed in more detail below. Sociobiologists, likewise, have documented numerous behavioral synergies among members of the same species, from co-operative foraging and hunting activities to co-operative defense, reproduction, environmental conditioning and even thermoregulation. (More also about sociobiology below.)
In the social sciences, synergy can be found in many of the phenomena studied by economists — from market dynamics (demand-supply relationships) to economies of scale, the division of labor and, of course, the products of technology. Psychologists also deal with synergistic effects, ranging from gestalt phenomena to social facilitation, group “syntality”, mob psychology and cult behavior. Political scientists observe synergistic effects in voting processes, interest group activity, coalition behavior, and a host of organizational phenomena, among other things.
The computer sciences are also grounded in synergy. There is, for example, the microscopic complexity of Intel’s Pentium microprocessor, which embodies the equivalent of 3.1 million transistors in a substrate that is about 2.17 inches square (it varies with the temperature). There is also the current generation of word processing software, which utilizes — synergistically — about two million separate lines of programming code, or instructions. Or consider the massively parallel computers, which in effect exploit the synergies associated with a division of labor and hierarchical control and offer performance improvements that are many orders of magnitude greater than what can be achieved by conventional sequential processing technology. The computers made by Thinking Machines have achieved up to 60 gigaflops, or 60 billion floating point operations (calculations) per second (as of this writing), and it is possible to build a machine that is capable of a teraflops, or a trillion calculations per second.
In fact, synergy exists in so many different forms that it defies efforts to develop an exhaustive typology. I will list below only some of the more common and functionally important categories, although these are not all mutually exclusive. (A number of examples were provided in the full text of this paper.)
- Linear effects: synergy that arises from additive or multiplicative phenomena. For instance, size is often an advantage in nature, and in human societies; a bigger organism, or a bigger group of organisms, may be able to do things that smaller ones cannot. And, for the most part, larger size is a co-operative effect that is achieved by the aggregation, or multiplication, of many component cells, parts or individuals.
- Threshold phenomena: what might be called “catastrophic” forms of synergy. Many of these are linear in origin, but their effects are systemic and depend on the specific context. The paradigmatic example is the old-fashioned tug-of-war, but there are many examples with more theoretical significance.
- Phase transitions: a form of synergy that is a special case of threshold phenomena. Phase transitions are abrupt changes of state, or of functional properties, that occur in many physical and dynamical systems; they are co-operative effects.
- Emergent phenomena: when two or more “parts” merge in such a way that a new whole arises with distinctive chemical, physical, functional and/or causal properties.
- Functional complementarities: a form of synergy that often overlaps with the emergent effects described above.
- Augmentation and facilitation: co-operative effects that enhance or in some cases make dynamic processes possible.
- Environmental conditioning: a special case of the augmentation and facilitation effects cited above. 8. Risk and cost sharing: reductions in risks and costs through various forms of co-operation, including flocking, schooling, synchronized breeding, joint nest-building and communal nesting, collective foraging and migration, pack hunting, and a variety of other co-operative behaviors.
- Information sharing: a subcategory of risk and cost sharing but worthy of being singled out because of its obvious importance in human societies.
- Social behavior and organization: A number of different survival-related synergies have been identified by ethologists and sociobiologists, including: (1) hunting and foraging collaboratively, (2) joint detection, avoidance of and defense against predators, (3) co-operative competition, or “coalition” behavior, particularly in relation to obtaining food, territory, social dominance and mates, (4) shared protection of jointly collected food caches, (5) co-operative movement and migration, (6) co-operation in reproduction, and (7) shared environmental conditioning and thermoregulation, as described above.
- Functional Convergences: There is, in addition, a broad category that I call “functional convergences” — fortuitous combinations of labor undertaken by the relevant actors independently of any regard for the combined result. For instance, it is a platitude these days to observe that most ecosystems are replete with relationships in which the participants, while in the process of pursuing their own survival and reproduction, also unwittingly contribute to an unplanned but integrated “web” of functional interactions — predatory, parasitic, commensalistic, mutualistic — along with more subtle forms of interdependency. Combined effects of various kinds are woven through every ecosystem. Although some of the patterns that result from these interactions may mimic dynamical models of spontaneous self-ordering, they are in fact the products of functional self-ordering processes; what may look like a “dynamical attractor” in a computer-generated model is in fact a functional convergence — a functionally-induced dynamic stability.
The Bioeconomics of Synergy
As the foregoing suggests, synergy can produce a variety of measurable, quantifiable benefits — economies of scale, increased efficiency, improved benefit-cost ratios, the melding of functional complementarities, reduction or spreading of costs and risks, augmentation effects, threshold effects, and the emergence of novel functional effects. Thus, information sharing by weaver birds (Quelea quelea) can measurably reduce individual energy expenditures for foraging (de Groot 1980), and the huddling behavior of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) against the Antarctic cold significantly reduces individual energy expenditures for thermoregulation (Le Maho 1977). Other examples include Bonner’s (1988) observations that aggregates of myxobacteria which move about and feed en masse secrete digestive enzymes that enable them collectively to consume much larger prey. Similarly, Schaller (1972) found that the capture efficiency (captures per chase times 100) and the number of multiple kills achieved by his Serengeti lion prides increased with group size — although a later study by Caraco and Wolf (1975) found that these results were dependent on the size of the prey. In the highly social African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), overall kill probabilities in hunting forays were found to be vastly superior (between 85 and 90 percent) to those achieved by less social top carnivores (Estes and Goddard 1967). Kummer (1968,1971) found that collective defense in hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) is highly successful and reduces the net risk to each individual troop member. Ligon and Ligon (1978,1982) analyzed the remarkable communal nesting behavior of the green woodhoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureus) and discovered that the extensive pattern of helping behaviors, even among unrelated individuals, markedly increased their likelihood of survival and reproductive success in their harsh Kenyan environment. Partridge (1982) and his colleagues have shown that fish schooling, which may include active forms of co-operation, is highly adaptive for the individual members. For instance, evasive maneuvers utilized by dwarf-herring against predatory barracudas dramatically reduces the joint risk of being eaten. And H.O. Wagner (1954) observed that the Mexican desert spiders (Leiobunum cactorum) cluster together in the thousands during the dry season, enabling them to avoid dehydration. In all of these cases, and in countless human analogues, there were synergies — co-operative economies — that could not otherwise be achieved. However, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that synergy is always context-specific and contingent. Consider again the examples cited above. Weaver birds have nothing to gain from information sharing when food is plentiful and widely distributed; huddling behavior by emperor penguins is not functional — and is not done — during the warm summer months; myxobacteria would find it dysfunctional to feed in large aggregations if their food sources were all small and widely dispersed; African lions would do better to hunt small, slow-moving prey alone; if wild dogs were ruminants, sociality would most likely not provide any nutritional benefits; collective defense by hamadryas baboons is relevant only because there are dangers to defend against; in more salubrious environments, green woodhoopoes would probably not find it advantageous to feed unrelated nestlings; dwarf-herring might not find it advantageous to school if there were not barracudas about; and desert spiders have nothing to gain by congregating during the wet season. Economic activity in human societies exhibits many of the same properties, and synergies. One important distinction has to do with the role of technology (which is often likened to a form of symbiosis) in driving the evolution of human cultures. Thus, for example, a native Amazonian using a steel ax can fell about five times as many trees in a given amount of time as could his ancestors with stone axes. Likewise, a farmer with a horse can plow about two acres per day, while a farmer with a modern tractor can plow about 20 acres per day. One New Guinea horticulturalist can produce enough food to feed himself and about four or five other people; an American farmer can produce enough to feed 45-50 people. And when the Mobil Oil Corporation recently purchased a Thinking Machines CM-5 computer to replace its existing supercomputer, the time (and cost) required to process a major batch of seismic data dropped from about 29 weeks and $2.8 million to 10 days and $100,000. Or consider this example from organized sports — truly a paradigm for co-operative human activities. In rowing, a world class “varsity eight” (plus a coxswain) can cover 2000 meters over the water in about 5.5 minutes. However, a single sculler can at best row the same distance in about 7 minutes. The difference is synergy, and if rowing were a matter of survival, the co-operators would be the fittest.
The Synergism Hypothesis
What is the principle underlying such mundane forms of magic? It is not magic at all, of course, but a fundamental characteristic of the material world that things in various combinations, sometimes with others of like kind and sometimes with very different kinds of things, are prodigious generators of novelty. And these novel co-operative effects have over the past 3.5 billion years or so produced at every level of life distinct, irreducible “higher levels” of causation and action whose constituent “parts” have been extravagantly favored by natural selection. Furthermore, in many instances these “wholes” have themselves become parts of yet another new level of combined effects, as synergy begat more synergy.
The formal hypothesis is that synergistic effects of various kinds have been a major source of creativity in evolution (see Corning 1983); the Synergism Hypothesis posits that it was the functional (selective) advantages associated with various forms of synergy that facilitated the evolution of complex, functionally-organized biological and social systems. In other words, underlying each of the many particular steps in the complexification process, a common functional principle has been at work.
Evolutionists often speak metaphorically about natural selection (as did Darwin himself) as if it were an active selecting agency, or literally a mechanism. Thus, Edward O. Wilson (1975:67) assures us that “natural selection is the agent that molds virtually all of the characters of species.” Ernst Mayr (1976:365) tells us that “natural selection does its best to favor the production of programs guaranteeing behavior that increases fitness.” And George Gaylord Simpson (1967:219) asserted that “the mechanism of adaptation is natural selection.” The problem is that natural selection does not do anything; nothing is ever actively selected. Natural selection refers to whatever factors are responsible in a given context for causing the differential survival and reproduction of genes, genic “interaction systems” (in Sewall Wright’s term), genomes, phenotypes, populations and species. It is the functional effects produced by various “units” of selection that matter. Indeed, evolutionary causation runs backwards from our convention- al notion of cause and effect; in evolution, functional effects are the proximate causal “mechanisms”.
Evolutionists have traditionally tended to focus their research efforts on a particular factor, or “selection pressure,” or on the functional properties of a “gene”. This has proven to be a useful heuristic device, but in fact the dynamics of evolutionary causation are always interactional and relational. To cite a textbook example, genetically-based differences between the light, “cryptic” strain of the peppered moth (Biston betularia) and the darker melanic strain played a role in the documented change in their relative frequencies in the English countryside during the Industrial Revolution. But their color differences became significant only because industrial soot progressively blackened the lichen-encrusted tree trunks that were the moths’ favored resting places. Moreover, this change in background coloration was significant only because the moths were subject to avian predators that used a visual detection system — as opposed, say, to the sonar systems used by bats (Kettlewell 1955,1973). In other words, the “mechanism” that was responsible for this micro-evolutionary change was the relationship between genetically-determined traits, the background coloration of the trees, the behavior of the moths and the nature of their predators.
Accordingly, any factor that precipitates a change in functional relationships — that is, in the viability and reproductive potential of an organism or the pattern of organism-environment interactions — represents a potential cause of evolutionary change. It could be a functionally-significant gene mutation, it could be a chromosomal rearrangement, a change in the physical environment, or, most significant for our purpose here, a change in behavior. In fact, a sequence of changes may ripple through an entire pattern of relationships: Thus, a climate change might alter the ecology, which might induce a behavioral shift to a new environment, which might lead to changes in nutritional habits, which might precipitate changes in the interactions among different species, resulting, ultimately, in morphological changes. A well-documented case in point is the long-term study in the Galapagos Islands of thirteen species of “Darwin’s finches,” which recently diverged from a common mainland ancestor (Grant and Grant 1989).
What, then, are the sources of creativity in evolution? There are many different kinds, but the role of behavioral changes as a “pacemaker” of evolutionary change should be emphasized. To quote an authority on the subject, Ernst Mayr (1960:373,377-78):
A shift to a new niche or adaptive zone requires, almost without exception, a change in behavior… It is very often the new habit which sets up the selection pressure that shifts the mean of the curve of structural [or functional] variation… With habitat selection playing a major role in the shift into new adaptive zones and with habitat selection being a behavioral phenomenon, the importance of behavior in initiating new evolutionary events is self-evident… Changes of evolutionary significance are rarely, except on the cellular level, the direct result of mutation pressure.
However, this model also begs the question: What causes behavioral changes? While this is obviously a very complicated subject, one important underlying principle can be identified. In fact, behavioral changes often involve a proximate causal “mechanism” — the immediate rewards and “reinforcements” that psychologist E.L. Thorndike (1965) associated with his famous Law of Effect, which forms the backbone of behaviorist psychology. At the behavioral level, in other words, there is a proximate selective process at work that is analogous to natural selection. Moreover, this “mechanism” is very frequently the initiating cause of the ultimate changes associated with natural selection (see Corning 1983; also Plotkin 1988; Bateson 1988; cf., Skinner 1981).
One example of this “mechanism” is the evolution of giraffes, which are frequently cited in elementary biology textbooks as illustrations of the distinction between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution. Evolutionists like to point out that the long necks of modern giraffes are not the product of stretching behaviors that were somehow incorporated into the genes of their short-necked ancestors (as Lamarck proposed). Instead, natural selection favored longer-necked giraffes once they had adopted the “habit” of eating tree leaves. And that’s the point. A change in the organism-environment relationship among ancestral giraffes, occasioned by a novel behavior, precipitated a new “selection pressure” for morphological change. This paradigm case of adaptionist theorizing is supported by the fact that there happens to be a short-necked species of Giraffidae called the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) in Africa that inhabit a very different environment from that of the prototypical giraffe and, as expected, employ a very different feeding strategy.
This is where the phenomenon of functional synergy fits into the evolutionary picture: It is the immediate, bottom-line payoffs of synergistic innovations in specific environmental contexts that are the causes of the biological/behavioral/cultural changes that, in turn, lead to synergistic longer-term evolutionary changes in the direction of greater complexity, both biological and cultural/ technological.
Consider these two illustrations, one from each realm. Anabaena is a single-celled cyanobacterium that engages in both nitrogen fixation and photosynthesis, a dual capability that gives it a significant functional advantage. However, these two processes happen to be chemically incompatible. The oxygen produced by photosynthesis inactivates the nitrogenase required for nitrogen fixing. Anabaena has solved this problem by complexifying. When nitrogen is abundantly available in the environment, all the cells are uniform in character. However, when ambient nitrogen levels are low, specialized cells called heterocysts are developed that lack chlorophyll but synthesize nitrogenase. The heterocysts are connected to the primary photosynthesizing cells by filaments. Thus, a compartmentalization and division of labor exists in Anabaena which benefits the “whole” (Shapiro 1988).
The second illustration involves a well-known example from The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith drew a comparison between the transport of goods overland from London to Edinburgh in “broad-wheeled” wagons and the transport of goods by sailing ships between London and Leith, the seaport that serves Edinburgh. In six weeks, two men and eight horses could haul about four tons of goods to Edinburgh and back. In the same amount of time, a merchant ship with a crew of six or eight men could carry 200 tons to Leith, an amount that, in overland transport, would require 50 wagons, 100 men and 400 horses.
The advantages of shipborne commerce in this situation are obvious. Indeed, shipment over water has almost always been an advantageous form of long-distance transport, as many different societies have demonstrated historically. But the causal explanation for Smith’s paradigmatic example is not so obvious. In part it involved a division of labor and the merging of an array of different human skills; in part it involved the fairly sophisticated technology of late eighteenth century sailing vessels; it also required the capital needed to finance the construction of the ships; it required a government that permitted and encouraged private enterprise and shipborne commerce (including the protection afforded by the British navy); it also required a market economy and the medium of money; in addition, it required an unobtrusive environmental factor, namely, an ecological opportunity for waterborne commerce between two human settlements located (not coincidentally) near navigable waterways with suitable tidal currents and prevailing winds.
In other words, the causal matrix involved a synergistic configuration of factors that “worked together” to produce a favorable result — a significant step in the ongoing process of technological, economic and societal evolution. However, it should also be stressed that (as noted above) if any of the major ingredients were to be removed from the recipe, the result would not have occurred. Take away, say, the important component technology of iron smelting. Or, in like manner, take away the baggage handling system from the new Denver Airport, or the power supply from Jurassic Park. Synergistic causation is always configural, and relational, and interdependent; the outcomes are always co-determined.2
Symbiosis and Evolution
A major source of support for this theory (with relevance for political evolution) can be found in the rapidly growing literature on “symbiosis”, or co-operative interactions among different species. Symbiosis in general and mutualism in particular represented at best a minor theme in biology until recently, and it certainly played no role in mainstream evolutionary theory. Some theorists considered symbiosis to be a “myth”; others viewed it merely as a small class of anomalies or oddities that in no way challenged the dominant neo-Darwinian synthesis (ie., competition and mass selection among point mutations in individual genes); still others recognized that mutualistic, co-operative relationships might provide organisms with a competitive advantage under some circumstances (even Darwin appreciated that), but it was assumed that such phenomena are relatively rare.
During the past decade, however, a dramatic change has occurred. There has been a major upsurge of research and theorizing about symbiosis. A culmination of this process was a landmark international conference in 1989 on symbiosis as a source of evolutionary innovation, at which some 20 participants documented the ubiquity of symbiosis and developed the case for “Symbiogenesis” as a significant factor in evolution (Margulis and Fester 1991). Among the evidence presented:
- Symbiosis is a far more widespread phenomenon than is generally appreciated. Mutualistic or commensalistic associations — not to mention parasitism — exist in all five “kingdoms” of organisms. (See the contribution by Margulis.) Elsewhere, Bermudes and Margulis (1987) documented that 27 of the 75 phyla in the four eukaryotic kingdoms (or 37%) exhibit symbiotic relationships.
- Over 90% of all modern land plants establish mycorrhizal associations, which are essential to their survival. (See the contribution by Lewis.)
- Land plants may have arisen through a merger between fungal and algal genomes — as sort of inside-out lichens. In any case, it is now generally accepted that land plants represent a joint venture between fungi and green algae. (See the contribution by Atsatt.)
- Almost one-third of all known fungi are involved in mutualistic symbioses, many of which have conferred on their partnerships the ability to colonize environments that would otherwise have been inaccessible to them (e.g., lichen). (See Kendrick.)
- Virtually all species of ruminants, including 2,000 termites, 10,000 wood-boring beetles and 200 Artiodactyla (deer, camels, antelope, etc.,) are dependent upon endoparasitic bacteria, protoctists or fungi for the breakdown of plant cellulose into usable cellulases. (See Price.)
- Given the fact that parasitic relationships are very often “building blocks” that facilitate a symbiotic interaction, it is estimated that over half of all the animal species on earth have feeding relationships that are mediated by symbionts. (For example, nematodes that are parasitic on beetles depend upon bacteria that can prevent the decay of host tissue by producing an antibiotic.) (See Price.)
- Though still speculative, it has been seriously proposed that angiospermous flowers and fruits are derived from arthropod-induced galls via the incorporation of microbial or fungal DNA into plant genomes. (See Pirozynski.)
- Also speculative at this point is the intriguing hypothesis that plant and animal chromosomes have symbiotic origins. (See Maynard Smith.)
- There is accumulating evidence that symbiosis may play a direct role in the process of speciation. Many symbionts produce emergent new synthetic products that are important to their mutual survival. For instance, leghemoglobin, which is essential to nitrogen fixation in plant nodules, is a joint product of the synthetic capabilities of both legumes (the globin chains) and their rhizobial symbionts (the heme groups). (See Honegger, Scannerini and Bonfante-Fasolo.)
- The startling discoveries of symbioses associated with sea floor hydrothermal vents provide additional evidence of Symbiogenesis as a factor in evolution. Within the abundant communities of organisms discovered at these vents are symbiotic partnerships between chemoautotrophic (sulfur-oxidizing) bacteria and various invertebrates, which rely on the bacteria for their carbon and energy requirements. (See Vetter.)
- Many organisms are more promiscuous with their genes, both as donors and as recipients, than the “selfish gene” model of the genome suggests. We now know that DNA travels easily, even across taxonomic boundaries, in the form of small replicons (plasmids, viruses, transposons, etc.). Bacterial communities provide an important example. Most bacterial cells congregate and reproduce in large, mixed colonies with many endosymbionts (virus-like plasmids and prophages) and ectosymbionts (metabolically complementary bacterial strains). These congregations call into question the classical notion of a species, in the sense of competitive exclusion and reproductive isolation. (See Sonea.)
- There was also discussion at the conference of what is indisputably one of the major benchmarks in the process of biological complexification, the evolution of eukaryotes. The eukaryotic cell, with its intricate structure of differentiated organelles, is a model of micro-level synergy (Adam Smith’s famous pin factory writ small) and one of the great breakthroughs in the evolution of complexity. During the past decade, new evidence of nucleic acid sequencing homologies with free-living bacteria, among other developments, has convinced many skeptics that some of the key organelles — the mitochondria, undulipodia (cilia) and chloroplasts — may indeed have evolved in accordance with the so-called SET (serial endosymbiosis theory) espoused by Lynn Margulis and others (Margulis 1981, 1993). While it remains less certain, it is also possible that the centrioles/kinetochores and spindle apparatus in eukaryotes may have derived from symbiotic (or parasitic) relationships with spirochetes. In short, the eukaryotic cell may be a “federation” -an obligate union of several once independent genomes.
- Finally, there was discussion at the conference of the hypothesis advanced by Bernstein et al., (1985) and Margulis and Sagan (1986) that sexual reproduction, one of the major remaining conundrums in evolutionary theory, may trace its roots to symbiotic damage repair mechanisms among ancestral prokaryotes of 3 billion years ago (see also Michod and Levin 1988; Kondrashov 1988). Because early bacterial forms were subject to intense ultraviolet radiation at a time when there was no ozone shield, DNA damage, particularly in the form of lethal thymine dimers, was undoubtedly a major environmental threat. “Microbial sexuality,” as Margulis and Sagan characterize it, would have provided an effective splicing and mending function via fusions (or perhaps cannibalism) between different cells with homologous DNA; access to “spare parts” would have provided a significant adaptive advantage with high fitness value. Examples of microbial sexuality can still be observed even today in the direct gene transfers that occur within cells via plasmids and viruses (Richmond 1979). It is presumed that later on in evolution, when the environment changed, sexual reproduction may have been perpetuated by the grafting on of other functions. For instance, William D. Hamilton and his co-workers (1990) have proposed that sexuality may be related to an anti-parasite strategy; the argument is that recombination helps to diversify genetic information more rapidly than do mutations. In either case, sexual reproduction is presumed to be synergistic.
Though much work still remains to be done by symbiologists on the costs, benefits and evolutionary implications of symbiosis, a number of tentative conclusions are possible. First, there can be no doubt that the synergies associated with symbiosis have played a significant role in the evolution of complexity. Furthermore, many of the synergistic/symbiotic phenomena described above most likely were the result initially of behavioral innovations — ranging from the earliest bacterial colonies to eukaryotes, lichen symbioses, coral communities, land plants, ruminant animals and the division of labor in socially-organized insects and mammals. Synergy provided the proximate rewards, or payoffs, and natural selection affected the appropriate longer-term biological changes.
A second conclusion is that symbiosis has provided many opportunities for organisms to occupy ecological niches that would not otherwise have been viable. The lichens that are often the first living forms to colonize a barren environment provide an example. And so also do the richly populated coral communities that are frequently found in what would otherwise be unproductive tropical waters. Likewise, gut symbiosis is indispensable for the niche occupied by ruminant animals. (The hydrothermal vent species, which occupy a unique niche, were also noted above.)
Another point is that fusion, or the functional integration of various elements, parts, or organisms via symbiosis, has clearly been established as one of the major “mechanisms” of complexification. Furthermore, evolutionary complexification via fusion or integration has a distinctive causal dynamic in which “behavioral” changes (broadly defined) precipitate new options for selection. These changes are sustained in the short term by proximate mechanisms — direct “rewards” or “reinforcements” (real-time payoffs and feedback). However, the ultimate cause of the process (natural selection) involves the fitness and reproductive consequences of the short-term functional effects.
However, symbiosis, or integration, represents only one of two very different modes of evolutionary complexification. Under the broader umbrella of synergy there are also the multifaceted processes of differentiation, which occur at many different levels and involve a very different sort of causal dynamic. We will consider both of these modes of complexification further below in relation to political evolution.
Finally, Symbiogenesis may be of particular importance for theories of human social and political evolution because it represents a major alternative (or perhaps a complement) to models that are sociobiologically-oriented. Inclusive fitness theory imposes a severe theoretical constraint that makes the fact of complex human societies difficult to account for in terms of conventional sociobiological theory, but a Symbiogenesis model has no such constraint. (This point will be pursued further below.)
The Evolution of Political Systems
How does this theoretical framework relate specifically to the evolution of political systems? We begin with the perennial problem of defining politics. Charles Evans Hughes, a distinguished Chief Justice of the United States, was indiscreet enough in his pre-Supreme Court days to remark that “The Constitution is what the judges say it is.” In like manner, or so it seems, politics is whatever political scientists, and political anthropologists, say it is. And, not surprisingly, there seem to be almost as many definitions of politics as there are theorists. The problem is that any given definition may rule in, or out, certain kinds of phenomena, or perhaps stress only one aspect of a multi-faceted class of phenomena.
Political Scientist Robert Dahl has written that a definition is in effect “a proposed treaty governing the use of terms.” The treaty I advocate defines politics as isomorphic with social cybernetics: A political system is the cybernetic aspect, or “sub-system” of any socially organized 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.
This definition is not original. The term “cybernetics” can be traced to the Greek word kybernetes, meaning steersman or helmsman, and it is also the root of such English words as “governor” and “government.” In the 19th century, the French scientist André Ampère took to using the term cybernetics as an equivalent for politics. More recently, the term has been employed by political scientists Karl Deutsch (1963), David Easton (1965) and John Steinbruner (1974), among others. The cybernetic model is also widely employed by life scientists, engineers and physicists.3
The single most important property of a cybernetic system is that it is controlled by the relationship between endogenous goals and the external environment. Consider this problem: When a rat is taught to obtain a food reward by pressing a lever in response to a light signal, the animal learns the instrumental lever-pressing behavior and learns to vary its behavior patterns in accordance with where it is in the cage when the light signal occurs, so that whatever the animal’s starting position, the outcome is always the same. Now, how is the rat able to vary its behavior in precise, purposeful ways so as to produce a constant result? Some behaviorists postulated environmental cues that modify the properties of the main stimulus acting on the animal and so modify the animal’s behavior. But this is implausible. It requires the modifying cues to work with quantitative precision on the animal’s nervous system; these cues are hypothetical and have never been elucidated; and most important, this model cannot deal with novel situations in which the animal has had no opportunity to learn modifying cues. A far more parsimonious explanation is that the animal’s behavior is purposive: The rat varies its behavior in response to immediate environmental feedback in order to achieve an endogenous goal (food), which in this case also involves a learned subgoal (pressing the lever).
The systems theorist William T. Powers (1973) has shown that the behavior of such a system can be described mathematically in terms of its tendency to oppose an environmental disturbance of an internally controlled quantity. The system will operate in such a way that some function of its output quantities will be nearly equal and opposite to some function of a disturbance any of the environmental variables that affect the controlled quantity, with the result that the controlled quantity will remain nearly at its zero point. In this model, “feedback” plays a key role in controlling the behavior of the system.
Needless to say, more complex cybernetic systems are not limited to maintaining any sort of simple and eternally fixed steady state. In a complex system, overarching goals may be maintained (or attained) by means of an array of hierarchically organized subgoals that may be pursued contemporaneously, cyclically, or seriatim. Furthermore, homeostasis shares the stage with “homeorhesis” (developmental control processes) and even “teleogenesis” (goal-creating processes).4
What is the justification for “dehumanizing” politics and converting the multifarious real-world processes to an abstract model? One advantage is that it reduces the many particular cases to an underlying set of generic properties which transcend any particular institutional arrangements, not to mention the motivations and perceptions of the actors who are involved. The cybernetic definition is also functionally-oriented. It is focussed on the processes of goal-setting, decision-making, communications and control (including the all-important concept of feedback), which are in fact indispensable requisites for all purposeful social organizations. Indeed, cybernetic regulatory processes exist in families, football teams, business firms and at all levels of government.
In this paradigm, the struggle for power — or “dominance competition” in the argot of ethology — is relevant and may even affect the Darwinian fitness of the participants, but this aspect is subsidiary to the role of politics qua cybernetics in the operation of any social system. Equally important, power struggles are a subsidiary aspect of the explanation for why such systems evolve in the first place. Social goals (goals that require two or more actors) and anticipated or realized outcomes are the primary drivers.
Another advantage of this definition is that it enables us to view human politics as one variant among an array of functionally analogous (and sometimes even homologous) cybernetic regulatory processes which are found in all other socially-organized species — from bacterial colonies to army ants to wolf packs — and in all known human societies, including by inference our group-living protohominid ancestors of more than three million years ago. Though there are great differences among these species, and among societies, in how political/cybernetic processes are organized and maintained, both the similarities and the differences are illuminating.
Thus, a cybernetic definition of politics is grounded in a biological — and functional — perspective and is related, ultimately, to the biological problem of survival and reproduction in, and for, organized societies. Politics in these terms can be viewed as a biological phenomenon that has played a significant functional role in the evolutionary process; political evolution has been inextricably linked to the synergies that have inspired the “progressive” evolution of complex social systems.
Within the biopolitics cum cybernetics paradigm, political evolution refers, most importantly, to the invention, and perhaps diffusion, of novel cybernetic mechanisms/processes/systems. Many of these are directly or indirectly related to the survival and thus the Darwinian fitness of the members of a social organization, but in human societies many more obviously are not. Some of these cybernetic innovations may lead to greater complexity in an existing system, or to the emergence of a new level of cybernetic control (The Port of New York Authority and the European Community are two examples in this century), but this need not always be so. In fact, some innovations involve an analogue of adaptive simplification in biological evolution. The substitution of a regulated market for a bureaucratic command system might be an example.
Explaining Political Evolution
How, then, do we account for the evolution of political systems, both historically and in the often puzzling contemporary cases? For example, how do we account for the collapse of the Soviet empire, which, as political scientist Kenneth Jowitt points out, “was not supposed to happen?” Or, for that matter, how can we account for the recent “Balkanization” of the Balkans?
In The Synergism Hypothesis (1983), a chapter was devoted to what was called an “Interactional Paradigm” (which was really a synthesis of various interdisciplinary paradigms that have been put forward over the past two decades). Here I can only provide a sketch of that causal framework. In brief, the pattern of causation in something as complex and variegated as the evolution of human societies requires a framework that is multidisciplinary, multi-leveled, “configural” (or relational), functional and cybernetic. It involves geophysical factors, biological and ecological factors, an array of biologically-based human needs — and derivative psychological and cultural influences — that must all be attended to, as well as organized economic activities and technologies (broadly defined) and, of course, political processes, all of which interact with one another in a “path dependent,” cumulative historical “flux” (see Figure I.).
This framework compels us to focus explicitly on the many co-determining factors that, in each case, interact synergistically — rather than trying to single out some monolithic causal variable that is ultimately destined to fall short. Also, it requires a recognition that the process of political evolution is always situation-specific, even when there may be recurrent patterns of covariance and invariances within the total configuration of factors. (The development of “evolutionary economics” over the past decade or so has introduced a similar, albeit not explicitly “bioeconomic,” perspective into economic theory.)
Some of these variables are obvious to political scientists. They involve the staples of conventional political analyses. But other variables are not always appreciated, or may be treated as constants. One case in point is fresh water resources, which have played a key role (necessary but not sufficient) in co-determining both the locations and the rise and decline of various civilizations — not to mention the conflicts between them. Thus, recent research has indicated that a major climate change precipitated the sudden collapse of the Akkadian empire in ancient Mesopotamia about 2200 B.C. (Weiss et al., 1993). Climate changes have also been implicated in the fall of the Mayan civilization and of Teotihuacán.
In fact, a major challenge for any theory of political evolution is that it must be able to account not only for “progressive” innovations and complexifications but also for “regressive” changes, for the episodic rise and decline of political systems. Two examples, one of each kind, will perhaps suffice to illustrate the synergistic nature of such changes.
The rise of the Zulu nation in the nineteenth century provides an instructive example of the former process (see Gluckman 1940, 1969 and Morris 1965). Until the early 1800s, the people (mainly of Bantu origin) who had come to inhabit what became known as Zululand (a region of the South African province of Natal) consisted of a disorderly patchwork of cattle-herding and minimally horticultural clans that frequently warred on one another. The most common casus belli were disputes over cattle, rights to grazing lands, and water rights. The ensuing combat was usually brief, for the most part involving prearranged pitched battles at a respectable distance between small groups of warriors armed with assegai (a lightweight, six-foot throwing spear) and oval cowhide shields. Injuries and fatalities were usually low.
As the human and cattle populations increased over time, resulting in “environmental circum- scription” (in Carneiro’s term), there was a corresponding increase in the frequency and intensity of warfare among the clans until a radical discontinuity occurred in 1816, when a 29-year-old warrior named Shaka took charge of the Zulu clan. Shaka immediately set about transforming the pattern of Natalese warfare by introducing a new military technology involving disciplined phalanxes of shield-bearing troops armed with short hooking and jabbing spears designed for combat at close quarters. Shaka’s innovation was as great a revolution in that environment as were the introduction of the stirrup and gunpowder into European warfare. After ruthlessly training his ragtag army of some 350 men, Shaka set out on a pattern of conquests and forced alliances that quickly became a juggernaut. Within three years Shaka had forged a nation of a quarter of a million, including a formidable and fanatically disciplined army of about 20,000 men — who were motivated in part by Shaka’s decree that they were not allowed to marry until they were blooded in battle. Shaka’s domain had also increased from about 100 square miles to 11,500 square miles. There was not a tribe in all of black Africa that could oppose the new Zulu kingdom, and in short order Shaka began to expand his nation beyond the borders of his peoples’ traditional lands. The further evolution and ultimate downfall of the Zulu nation at the hands of the Europeans in the latter part of the century is another chapter. What is significant here is the profound structural and functional changes — changes involving the superposition of an integrated political system — which occurred among the Zulu by virtue of decisive political entrepreneurship stimulated by population pressures and coupled with synergistic changes in military techniques and organization. Again, the causal process was configural and interactional, with cybernetic control processes being an integral part of the synergies that resulted. Moreover, these synergies were positively “reinforcing”, as well as providing “positive feedback” in the strict cybernetic sense. The classic example of political decline is the Roman empire, which recent scholarship suggests involved, among other things, a nexus of populational, economic and political causes. (For a more detailed analysis, see Corning 1983.) The explanation begins, ironically, with a population explosion. In 400 B.C., there were only about 150,000 adult citizens on the entire Italian peninsula. As late as 70 B.C., there were only about 500,000 citizens and about the same number of slaves and freemen in metropolitan Rome, according to the Roman census. But by 28 B.C., the number of Roman citizens had reached about four million, the majority of whom, it is thought, were living in the provinces. Meanwhile, a profound shift was occurring in the Roman economy. The rapid population increases created a growing dependence on overseas food imports — especially grain from Sicily and Egypt — to a considerable extent independently of a conversion of “domestic” agriculture to large-scale, export-oriented, slave-based Latifundia. At the same time, Rome’s once thriving export markets for manufactured goods declined as the provinces learned to make Roman products more cheaply at home. Unfavorable trade balances eventually led to inflation and a debasement of the currency. To cope with this imbalance, Rome began to place greater tax burdens on its empire, ostensibly to support the military legions and civil servants that were supposed to be out there to provide protection and maintain law and order but who ultimately came to be perceived as being there to support the tax collectors. The rest of the story is complicated, but this important configuration of changes (which were exacerbated by a stagnation of investment and enterprise, serious structural weaknesses in the political system and some other factors not mentioned here) fundamentally altered the cost-benefit calculus for many Roman subjects and thus undermined the synergies that had been responsible for Rome’s ascendancy. There was nothing deterministic or orthogenetic about these two evolutionary episodes. Nor can any monolithic causal variable encompass them. The causal matrix in each case involved a dynamic mix of interacting factors located at several “levels” of causation — from geophysical to ecological, biological, technological and political. Numerous factors “worked together,” synergistically, in a relationship of mutual and reciprocal causation, to facilitate the rise of the Zulu nation and to bring about the destruction of the Roman empire. As the eminent classical scholar Charles Alexander Robinson observed: “The problem of the decline of the Roman Empire will probably be debated as long as history is studied, for it was a complex phenomenon in which many factors interacted, not one of which can be singled out as the prime cause” (1951:611). It would appear that a similar configuration of factors worked together to undermine the Soviet empire. Ironically, a reduction in Russia’s historic sense of vulnerability to external attack was one of the factors that served to weaken the perceived need for the empire. When this was coupled with a disastrous war (Afghanistan), an upwelling of internal demands for dissolution and the need to reform a “sclerotic” internal economy (among other factors), the calculus of perceived costs and benefits was altered for those who had the power to defend the empire.
Testing the Theory
Some political evolutionists have proposed linear or cyclical theories of political evolution, with postulates of law-like or orthogenetic properties. The synergy cum cybernetic theory, by contrast, posits an open-ended, historically contingent functional explanation that, far from being vacuous and untestable, permits a number of falsifiable propositions. Several of these were advanced in The Synergism Hypothesis and were discussed in detail there. (See also Corning 1987.) Here I will mention three in particular:
- The theory would be falsified if any purposeful, socially organized group could be found where cybernetic (political) processes were non-existent.
- The theory would be falsified if any case could be found where cybernetic (political) processes existed in the absence of any perceived functional benefits, or positive synergies, for one or more of the participants.
- The theory predicts that there will always be a strong correlation between the size and complexity of any social organization and the size and complexity of its cybernetic sub-system; the theory could be falsified if this expected correlation proved to be weak or non-existent.
To be sure, there may be short-term “lags” in the predicted relationships, but they should nevertheless be valid over the longer term. In other words, allowing for exceptions that don’t disprove the rule, political systems do not exist in the absence of functional synergies, and functional synergies in social organizations do not exist without correlative cybernetic control processes. That is as close to a testable law of political evolution as I believe we will get.
One way of evaluating this theory may be in terms of the light it can shed on the various hypotheses about political evolution that were briefly described above. Although a detailed analysis is not possible here, a few key points are in order.
First, consider Gary Johnson’s hypothesis about what might be called primeval politics. Kin selection/inclusive fitness (i.e., reproductive self-interest) may very well have provided both a constraint and a window of opportunity for the earliest steps in hominid social organization. However, kin selection is not a sufficient explanation. Reproductive self-interest is universal in nature and is always a constraint on social behavior. Something more is needed to explain why some species have exploited various modes of co-operative behavior while others have not. Indeed, why have so many species engaged in symbiotic relationships with other species in total disregard for their biological relatedness? There is also a biological imperative that, for many species, counteracts the constraining influence of inclusive fitness — the deleterious effects of inbreeding depression and the pressure to outbreed (Thornhill 1993). This genetically-based contradiction to the selfish gene hypothesis impelled our hominid ancestors regularly to exchange genes with non-kin.
There is also, I believe, a structural deficiency in the sociobiological model of social behavior; it appears to exclude an entire category that I refer to as “Corporate Goods.” I can provide only an abbreviated definition here. Corporate goods involve combinations or divisions of labor (not simply one-on-one reciprocities) that produce combined “goods” (synergies) which are susceptible of being divided up and shared in various ways; they are not indivisible “collective goods.” Moreover, such goods have the property that they are highly sensitive to all of the participants doing their parts, or playing their roles; if anyone defects, the goods for all may not be so good. For example, imagine what might happen if one of the key pin-making machine operators in Adam Smith’s pin factory were to call in sick. All work might come to a halt. And what if the workers’ pay were based on piece-work — the daily output of pins? (For a more detailed discussion, see Corning 1983.)
Finally, inclusive fitness theory is manifestly unable to account for the most revolutionary aspect of human social evolution, namely, the fact that our ancestors broke through the inclusive fitness barrier and launched a trend toward ever-larger, more functionally differentiated and complexly organized societies composed predominantly of non-kin. How have human polities succeeded in vastly expanding the nature and scope of their co-operative activities? As Geiger correctly pointed out, something more is needed to account for more recent human evolution, and politics. But does Geiger’s alternative model meet the need?
Geiger’s basic premise is that bureaucratic regimes cannot be explained in terms of kin selection. However, the self-organizing model that he proposes is not the only alternative available. A functionalist, selectionist model based on the Synergism Hypothesis is another alternative. As noted above (Footnote 2), a self-organizing model may or may not be compatible with a functionalist explanation. But, as Geiger formulates his hypothesis, it amounts to a null hypothesis for the synergy cum cybernetic model; if it can be shown that large-scale bureaucratic states evolved independently of any functional goals, or consequences, the Synergism Hypothesis would be falsified.
Modelski’s (1994b) movement toward a functionalist/selectionist/synergy-oriented model of global system evolution is in general compatible with the Synergism Hypothesis. However, at this juncture, it also includes an uncritical attempt to meld selectionist, cyclical and orthogenetic models. This is a theoretical whole that is less than the sum of its parts. Modelski must be able to show that a contingent, context-specific, functional theory is not internally contradicted by being at the same time Kantian in its vision of an “unfolding” process, “a design which works by laws that are unknown to us” — including Long Cycles that, he suggests, have somehow played a causal role in the process. Without the Long Cycle, he says, there would be no evolution in world politics. I don’t believe Modelski can have it both ways.
An analysis of Axelrod and Hamilton’s important theoretical contribution begins with the observation that the entire game was, unwittingly, based on the assumption that co-operation would produce synergy. Specifically, it assumed a total of 2 points (one for each player) if both “defected”. It assumed 5 points (all awarded to the defector) if only one player co-operated (parasitism? exploitation?), with the defector being punished in the next round by mutual defection, according to the winning TIT FOR TAT strategy. And it assumed 6 points (3 apiece) for mutual co-operation, leading to the same outcome in round two. The fact that this highly contrived computer model depended (implicitly) on synergy for the results that were achieved highlights an important point about the applicability of game theory to the real world. The conditions under which individuals choose to co-operate may be affected by a variety of “selfish” constraints, but the actual choices through time will also depend on the functional consequences, and the distribution of both costs and benefits among the “players”. Thus, Axelrod’s work also supports the Synergism Hypothesis: The functional consequences of co-operative behaviors are an essential part of the explanation for the evolution of co-operation.
As for the “warfare hypothesis,” organized warfare is for better or worse a significant source of synergy in human societies. There are, for instance, the threshold synergies associated with the relative size or the number of combatants, the technological synergies that are embodied in the weapons of war, and the synergies associated with a military division of labor — say the 5,000-person crew of a modern aircraft carrier. Warfare provides a preeminent example of the slogan: “competition via co-operation.” There is also much evidence — ethnographic, archeological, historical, even ethological — that warfare has played a major role in human history. But is warfare the necessary and sufficient cause of large-scale human polities?
In the first place, given the grave risks and potential costs to the participants (in most cases), one needs to ask why do wars occur? What might be the offsetting benefits? In fact, there is a very extensive scholarly literature on the causes of war. (Among others, see Russett 1972; Choucri and North 1975; Waltz 1979; Zinnes 1980; Bueno de Mesquita 1981; Gilpin 1981; Corning 1983).5 To summarize this literature: Wars can involve all of the “levels” in the causal framework illustrated in Figure I above: Resource constraints (or opportunities), population growth, psychological predispositions, cultural factors, technologies and economic activities, the dynamics of political processes (and political “entrepreneurship”) and relationships with other human populations. Conflict between the small, kin-based groups of early hominids were most likely related to competition for needed resources: water holes, favorable sleeping sites, herds of game animals, etc. (Whether group hunting came first and preadapted humans for inter-group aggression, or vice versa, remains uncertain.) Later on, as the economic basis of human societies evolved, the sources of conflict may have expanded to include control over such critical resources as firewood and obsidian, and, still later, arable land and strategic rivers. (It is one of the ironies of human evolution that every new technology has created a new dependency.)
Wars have not always been necessary to resolve such conflicts. Many conflicts have been resolved by peaceful means, and there are many examples of peaceful coexistence. However, warfare has often been the preferred solution. Nor have wars been a sufficient explanation. Without the many other factors that have contributed to the evolution of complex societies, warfare would not have carried human populations much beyond the level of the Yanomamo or the Dugum Dani. Indeed, if conflict between groups were sufficient, there should also be nation states composed of chimpanzees, which we now know are quite “warlike” (Goodall 1986). The very absurdity of this idea highlights the fact that many other factors “worked together” synergistically to further the process of complexification in human polities. These factors included (to name a few): bipedalism, binocular vision, the human hand, tool making, an omnivorous diet, group hunting, the development of symbolic language (and later on, writing), increased intelligence, the domestication of fire and of various animal species (dogs, camels, elephants, horses, etc.), herding, agriculture (and the agricultural surpluses which enabled human populations to expand), not to mention the division of labor. Moreover, many of these factors entailed an elaboration of functionally-based modes of social co-operation, as well as instrumentalities of political control — and coercion (see Gurr 1988). Again, if any one of these co-determining factors, say bipedalism or language or agriculture, were to be removed from the recipe, the outcome would not have been the same.
In sum, warfare has been a frequently used adaptive strategy for human societies, an instrumentality that has (mostly) been related to the broader problem of survival and reproduction for human groups. The implication of a “synergy model” is that warfare is predominately, though not exclusively, a synergy-laden functional activity — even when the outcomes do not fulfill the combatants’ expectations. (This is not meant to condone wars but to explain them.) Furthermore, the causal matrix is far more complex than any single-digit theory can encompass. The process of societal/political evolution is rooted in a configuration of biologically-based human needs, of which physical security and access to needed resources are essential but not the entire story. Warfare has been an important facet of human evolution, but it has been shaped in turn by other aspects of the total survival enterprise. For instance, it is obvious that technology has been one of the driving influences in the evolution of warfare, but many military technologies were initially invented for non-military purposes and were only later adapted to warfare: Gunpowder, steel making, telephones, automobiles and airplanes come readily to mind.
A further test of the Synergism Hypothesis is whether or not it has any predictive value. What does it predict about the future? Much has been written about the properties of historical/ evolutionary theories in recent years. Briefly, the so-called “orthogenetic” theories — which are rooted in a venerable pre-Darwinian tradition — permit firm predictions because they assume that the process is governed by some directive influence or force — extrinsic or intrinsic — that ultimately determines the trajectory or outcome of the process. “Darwinian” theories, by contrast, are grounded in the assumption that the process is historically contingent and “chaotic,” in the sense that the overall pattern is held to be fully determined but not predictable. Indeed, the evolution of “self-determination” in the human species (see Corning 1994) has introduced a unique source of creativity into the evolutionary process, which orthogenetic theories necessarily discount.
But if the Synergism Hypothesis does not allow one to make unequivocal predictions about the future course of political evolution, it is possible to make a number of conditional “if-then” predictions based on an understanding of the causal factors involved and of the relationships among them. Thus, for example, one can predict that, if global economic interdependency continues to increase, as the ongoing developments in technology, industry and international trade portend, cybernetic mechanisms, mechanisms of regulation and governance, will evolve apace. The many existing areas of international regulation — postal, aviation, oceanic, telecommunications, etc., — will be augmented by new economic, financial and monetary regimes and, perhaps, by more formalized and legitimated enforcement powers. (The new World Trade Organization may well play a role in this process.) However, there are many “ifs,” which are pre-conditions. For instance, various unpredictable, cataclysmic events could intervene: plagues, global climate changes, nuclear catastrophes, or political upheavals of various kinds. The configurations of synergies that provide the motivation for political innovation are always contingent.
By the same token, one can also predict that the apparently contradictory countertrend toward political disaggregation/fragmentation will continue insofar as the functions/synergies provided by the traditional nation-states — including, preeminently, “national security” — decline or are superseded. The apparent paradox dissolves within the context of the propositions cited above.
Beyond such conditional predictions, does this paradigm have any heuristic value? For one thing, it implies the use of more expansive, multi-leveled, multi-variate (and multi-disciplinary) analyses, with a focus on the functional relationships among the variables and not merely on their additive statistical properties. For instance, the accumulating evidence that sudden, drastic climate changes were associated with the precipitous decline of many early civilizations impels a more systematic analysis of this variable as a cause of past, present and future political changes.
A second implication is that a more sustained effort should be devoted to elucidating the bioeconomics (and economics) of synergy — the concrete, measurable consequences, or “payoffs”, of co-operative phenomena that may serve to sustain or undermine cybernetic (political) processes.
This paradigm also invites us to utilize the insights gained by the life sciences about the evolution of complexity. As noted earlier, two major modes of functionally-based complexification have been evident in the broader process of biological evolution: (1) symbiotic partnerships, or “mergers” of various kinds that have precipitated new forms of synergy and new functional capabilities, and (2) “autogenous” differentiation and specialization, again resulting in new forms of functional synergy and new cybernetic processes. Indeed, if social organization based on an inclusive fitness model may provide an appropriate framework for explaining the earliest phase of human evolution, it may well be the case that a “Symbiogenesis model” (co-operative partnerships among unrelated individuals) best fits the revolutionary changes in human societies since the Paleolithic. One must, of course, avoid using facile analogies as a substitute for rigorous analysis. But in this case the biological analogy directs our attention to phenomena in human societies that may be viewed as variations on a basic evolutionary theme rather than as borrowed metaphors.
Finally, there is the challenge of testing further the theory itself. A better causal theory of political evolution may in due course be established. But, in the meantime, I would hope that this one will be given serious consideration.
“Co-operation” in this context is a functional term meaning, literally, to “operate together.” It is not a synonym for altruism, as many theorists suppose it to be, and it does not negate the role of competition in evolution. The dichotomy between competition and co-operation needs to be replaced by the concept of “competition via co-operation.”
The recently developed theories of self-organization would seem to be orthogonal to this functionalist, selectionist theory. Mathematical modelling work in biophysics, utilizing a new generation of non-linear partial differential equations, has produced a radically different hypothesis about the sources of biological order. As articulated by Stuart Kauffman in an important new synthesis (Kauffman 1993), much of the order found in nature may be “spontaneous” and autocatalytic — a product of the generic properties of living matter itself. Kauffman envisions a new physics of biology in which the emerging natural laws of organization will be recognized as being responsible both for driving the process and for truncating the role of natural selection. Natural selection in Kauffman’s paradigm is viewed as a supporting actor.
Many years ago, Theodosius Dobzhansky voiced what still stands as the most important scientific objection to such “orthogenetic” and non-selectionist visions. The basic problem, he noted, is that these theories implicitly downgrade the contingent nature of life and the basic problem of survival and reproduction. In fact, they explain away the very thing that requires an explanation: “No theory of evolution which leaves the phenomenon of adaptedness an unexplained mystery can be acceptable” (Dobzhansky 1962:16). There’s the rub. Order is not a synonym for adaptation, and adaptation in nature depends on functional design.
Self-organization is an undisputed fact, and the case for autocatalysis, especially in the early stages of evolution, is compelling. But Kauffman’s models, and various related efforts, beg the question: Do the dynamical attractors in a Boolean network model represent autonomous self-ordering processes? Or do they perhaps model stable combinations of polymers, genes, cells or organisms which, in the real world, would be likely to be favored by natural selection? The answer may be both. The ordering observed in evolution may have been a trial-and-success process in which the stable attractors identified in dynamical systems models also happen to simulate functionally viable synergistic combinations — the material entities that must exist in the real world.
What is the relationship, then, between synergy and self-organization? In fact, these two paradigms may not be contradictory but complementary. The process of evolutionary complexification may well have had autocatalytic aspects and certain inherently self-organizing properties that were independent of Darwinian selection processes, at least initially. But the “wholes” that resulted ultimately had to be functionally efficient as well. They had to pass the test of fitness. And, in fact, the most significant thing about organization, however it arises,is the synergy it produces. Thus, synergy is also found at the heart of self-organizing phenomena; in effect, synergy may be the functional bridge that connects self-organization and natural selection in complex systems.
The science of cybernetics is not about thermostats or machines; that characterization is a caricature. Cybernetics is about purposiveness, goals, information flows, decision-making control processes and feedback (properly defined) at all levels of living systems. There is a large technical literature in this pan-discipline, as well as several journals and professional societies.
Cybernetic mechanisms are not limited only to one level of organization. Over the past decade or so we have come to appreciate the fact that they exist at many levels of living systems. They can be observed in, among other things, morphogenesis, cellular activity and neuronal network operation, as well as in the orchestration of animal behavior. Also, the cybernetic model encompasses processes that conform to physicist Herman Haken’s (1988) paradigm of “distributed control.” It should also be noted that cybernetic control processes may produce results that resemble Boolean dynamical attractors, but they are achieved in a very different way. By the same token, the cybernetic model, properly applied, calls into question the hypothesis (e.g., Lovelock 1990) that the biosphere is controlled by “automatic” non-teleological feedback relationships. Without some internal “reference signal” (teleonomy), there can be no feedback control, although there can certainly be self-ordered processes of reciprocal causation at work, or perhaps Darwinian processes of “coevolution” and “stabilizing selection.” Indeed, the existence of systemic purposiveness (teleonomy) is what distinguishes organisms (and “superorganisms”) from ecosystems (see Wilson and Sober 1989). The mere fact of functional interdependence is insufficient to justify the use of an organismic/cybernetic analogy.
Students of the origins of warfare tend to focus on the role of various underlying or predisposing causal factors. Peter Meyer (1987, 1990) identifies the motivating effect of “fear itself” (fear of other potentially hostile human groups) and the closely linked psychology of ethnocentrism and xenophobia (see also Reynolds et al., 1987; van der Dennen and Falger 1990). John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1988) argue the case for various “cognitive preadaptations” that they believe were necessary preconditions for the orchestration of social behaviors. R.B. Ferguson (1984) stresses the material basis: conflicts over land, protein, women, etc., (see also Durham 1976), while Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong (1989) have proposed a multi-factorial theory that encompasses competition over scarce resources, psychological predispositions and weapons development.
This is an abbreviated and revised version of a paper presented at the 16th World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Berlin, Germany, August 1994. The author wishes to thank particularly Larry Goldberg, a Research Fellow at ISCS, Peter Meyer of the University of Augsburg, Vincent Falger of the University of Utrecht and Nazli Choucri of MIT.