Nature's Magic: Synergy In Evolution And the Fate of Humankind

Summary of: Nature's Magic: Synergy In Evolution And the Fate of Humankind

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Synergies that convey advantages drive and accelerate biological and cultural evolution by providing a package of independent elements that confer benefits many times greater than those conferred by individual elements: in biology, synergies of independently evolved traits can lead to the development of the power of flight or the emergence of humans as the dominant species; in humans, complex, coordinated activity over sustained periods leverages the power of physical tools, cultural discoveries, and social organization.


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Cambridge University Press


  • Synergy, "the combined or cooperative effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts, or individuals in a given context – effects that are not otherwise possible," is a key driver of biological and human cultural evolution by providing immediately useful packages of benefits.
  • Certain packages of different traits, strategies, tools, norms – such as those involved with the emergence of group foraging or, much later, agriculture convey such powerful immediate survival advantages on the human groups that use them that social-cultural change happens far more quickly than it would through Darwinian evolution.
  • Human cooperation leverages synergies of tools, knowledge about the environment, social and cultural practices, to economic advantage – the payoff for cooperation for a group is high enough to overcome the individual resistance and other barriers to bringing the elements together.
  • There are at least five, perhaps more, distinct paths to cooperation and complexity in biological evolution: altruism, reciprocity, functional interdependence, mutualism, and parasitism.

Bacteria colonies that migrate and forage and form joint structures via chemical signaling, social insects that engage in joint problem solving behaviors via chemical signaling, symbiotic relationships between ruminants from termites to cattle with cellulose-digesting bacteria, Margulis' evidence for the symbiogenesis of mitochondria and hypthoses that flagella originated from the joining of free-swimming spirochetes with energy-producing but less-mobile microorganisms, the probably evolution of flight from a suite of synergistic functional changes, the emergence of protohumans are all cited by Corning as evidence that synergies play a central, not a peripheral role in evolution of complex life forms: "Synergy has played a key role in the progressive evolution of complex systems in nature. However, complexity is not an end in itself; it's a consequence of the innovations that produce more potent forms of synergy. Synergy is the 'driver.'"

William E. Hamilton's papers on "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior" in 1964 formalized the neo-Darwinian explanation of altruistic behavior as conferring benefits on close kin, but Robert Trivers' 1964 "Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" decoupled kinship, cooperation, and altruism by offering evidence that the helping organism acts with the assumption that low-cost, low-risk assistance to another now will be repaid later – reciprocity.

Game theoretic models were driven to more realistically match human and biological behavior than Axelrod's and Hamilton's models when zoologist Martin Nowak and mathematician Karl Sigmund created "Pavlov," a Prisoner's Dilemma strategy based on "win-stay, lose-shift" that introduces punishment. Corning objects to inclusive fitness theory, reciprocal altruism, tit-for-tat as adequate explanatory frameworks because they exclude interactions that provide synergistic combined effects and are self-policing because they are interdependent – the way two oarsman are interdependent when trying to cross a river if they each have one oar. Corning claims "The intellectual fascination of the Prisoner's Dilemma game may have led us to overestimate its evolutionary importance."

Rejecting single-cause "prime mover" hypotheses for either biological or cultural evolution, Corning lists "five maybe six distinct paths to cooperation and complexity in evolution:" altruism, reciprocity, functional interdependence, mutualism, and parasitism.

In regard to humans, Corning points to specific probable synergistic packages that enabled proto-humans to evolve from tree-dwelling primates, for language to evolve as an adaptation on precursors, for hunting and gathering culture to dominate and spread, for fire use to be culturally maintained, and for settled agriculture to take root and replace nomadic foraging and hunting as the dominant human form of social organization. Asking how a small, lightweight primate that can't fly or run very fast, lacking natural defensive weapons, but having bipedal gait, manipulative hands, omnivorous digestive system and large brain managed to shift to an earthbound habitat, broaden its resource base, and expand its range, Corning proposes that "In a patchy but relatively abundant woodland environment that was also replete with predators, competitors , and sometimes hostile groups of conspecifics, group foraging and collective defense/offense was the most cost-effective strategy. There were immediate payoffs (synergies) for collective action that did not have to await the plodding pace of natural selection….There may well have been group selection, but it was not based on altruism. It involved what the economists call 'collective goods' or 'public goods.'"

Corning agrees with Jared Diamond that the emergence of agricultural civilization, empires, and wars of conquest in the fertile crescent 10,000 years ago was due to what Diamond himself called a "package" of ecological circumstances and cultural inventions that worked together synergistically: domesticated, genetically altered plants and animals, draft animals, technologies for plowing, cutting, threshing, grinding, food transport and storage, cooking, processing hides and fibers, sewing, manufacturing tools of stone, bone, and wood, as well as access to reliable fresh water sources, abundant fuel, long-distance trade, and defense against raiders. As a result, ten to one hundred times more people can be fed from one acre than from hunting-gathering, and a settled lifestyle permitted a reduction of the spacing of births from a four year separation among nomads to two years, leading to rapid population growth.

Corning cites contemporary examples of synergistic cultural evolution involving the creation of new forms of collective action, together with new toolsets. The Igorot people of the remote mountains of Luzon, in the Philippines, use a vast, elaborate, intricately constructed combination of terraces, dams, canals, and ponds to grow rice sustainably and with remarkable efficiency. It was originally thought that the system was thousands of years old, but anthropologist Charles Drucker turned up evidence indicating that lowlanders who had practiced slash-and-burn agriculture for millennia were forced to migrate to the highlands when Spanish invaders seized choice lowlands. The sustainable high yields of Igorot rice farming depends on constant replenishment of soil nitrogen in places where there is not a natural abundant supply. The Igorot use ponds of blue-green algae that live in symbiosis with the rice plants, receiving carbon dioxide from the rice in exchange for fixing nitrogen. In order to use and maintain this new, complex technological and ecological system the former slash-and-burn lowlanders had to invent a new social and political system involving the disciplined coordination of many family groups.

The Great Basin Shoshone of North America, studied by Julian Steward in the 1930s, forage in very small family groups, with plants providing 80% of their calories. In winter, however, several families gather in larger camps near an abundant resource and trade information, teach each other skills, and find mates. During rabbit drives, groups of 75 or more coordinate efforts deploying nets hundreds of feet long. A division of labor is temporarily established between net holders and beaters, under the supervision of a temporary rabbit boss.

Work by Gintis, Bowles, Fehr and Gächter indicate that strong reciprocity among humans is egoistic, not altruistic or cooperative, and depends on aggressive punishment of cheaters. This is related to work by Boyd and Richerson on group-serving norms of "fairness." Corning notes: "…the principle of fairness came to play a central role in reconciling conflicting claims of self-interest within the groups/bands/tribes that were indisipensable to our ancestors' survival and reproductive success over many thousands of generations."