An Introduction

In his path-breaking book, Beyond Reductionism (1969), the famed novelist and polymath Arthur Koestler remarked that "true innovation occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate." He was talking about synergy, of course, a phenomenon that is still greatly underrated and vastly more important even than Koestler imagined. I call it "nature's magic."

Synergy is in fact one of the great governing principles of the natural world; it ranks right up there with such heavyweight concepts as gravity, energy, information and entropy as one of the keys to understanding how the world works. It has been a wellspring of creativity in the evolution of the universe; it has greatly influenced the overall trajectory of life on Earth; it played a decisive role in the emergence of humankind; it is vital to the workings of every modern society; and it is no exaggeration to say that our ultimate fate depends on it. Indeed, every day, in a thousand different ways, our lives are shaped, and re-shaped, by synergy.

All of these grandiose-sounding claims are discussed in detail, with many hundreds of examples, in three of my books: The Synergism Hypothesis (McGraw-Hill, 1983), Nature's Magic (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Holistic Darwinism (University of Chicago Press, 2005), as well as in many of my articles for professional journals. Some of these publications are available at my website:

The purpose of this blog is to provide a continuing update on synergy and an opportunity for some dialogue on this important and still underappreciated phenomenon, along with commentaries on various topics - political, economic, and social -- from a synergy-monger's perspective. The tag-lines for each entry, with a "thought for the day," are the unregulated firecrackers that go off in my mind from time to time.

Peter Corning


Sunday, November 30, 2008

There Are No Tranches in the Trenches

Our (late) financial bubble was a paper maché tree that bore a season of fruit, but it was rotten from its roots to its crown. Indeed, there was delusion or outright fraud, or both, at every level – from sub-prime mortgages that were issued without imposing any financial pre-qualifications whatsoever (i.e., the ability to pay the mortgage) to investment bank hustles that bought up these “terminator loans,” divided them into “tranches” (small pieces) and bundled them into “derivatives” where – in retrospect -- the sum of the underlying risks was greater than each of the parts. All of these toxic securities were in turn blessed by well-compensated ratings agencies whose shabby oversight made them parties to these ponzi schemes.

These and many other shady practices have taught us (we hope) once again that our financial system is too important to be left to the bankers. The rest of us who are down in the trenches of our economy and who are dependent upon our financial institutions have the collective right to impose stringent regulation and ultimate transparency – to protect the bankers from themselves. This, above all, is “the change we need.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Invasion of the Memes: Is it Science Fiction?

There is much ado in evolutionary biology and some of the social sciences these days about an imperialistic paradigm known as "universal Darwinism," and the related concept of "memes." Memes, it seems, are the "new, new thing" (to quote the title of a best-selling book on the high technology boom and Silicon Valley). According to the promoters of universal Darwinism, any form of evolutionary change may be viewed as Darwinian in character if it exhibits three key properties: (1) a system of "replicators" (genes are the model, of course), (2) variations among the replicators, and (3) differential "selection" among the varying replicators in each generation via competition. Some adherents also espouse a fourth, sometimes implicit assumption, namely that the replicators have a degree of autonomy that allows them actively to pursue their selfish interests. On the other hand, the selection process is viewed as a purely impersonal, amorphous (mindless) process. Accordingly, in universal Darwinism the replicators are often touted as the primary actors. The fountainhead for this paradigm is, of course, Richard Dawkins' best-seller, The Selfish Gene.

Some universal Darwinists, Daniel Dennett, Gary Cziko and, most notably, psychologist Susan Blackmore in her book The Meme Machine (1999), see this reductionist evolutionary dynamic at work in human societies as well. In cultural evolution, Blackmore claims, the replicators are hypothetical entities called memes, a term coined by Dawkins as a cultural analogue for genes. Dawkins intended it as a metaphor, but Blackmore (and others) argue that memes are real physical entities, like genes (DNA). Moreover, memes have a mind of their own; they compete among themselves "for their own sake" [Blackmore's emphasis]. Just as Dawkins characterized organisms as "machines" for making more genes, so every human is "a machine for making more memes....We are meme machines," Blackmore tells us. Citing the dubious assertion by Stephen Pinker that humans have "surplus" mental abilities (especially imitative abilities) that cannot be accounted for as adaptations for survival and reproduction, Blackmore contends that the selfish interests of memes can explain the evolution of these otherwise inexplicable surplus abilities. Memes have taken control of our cultural evolution, she says. (In fact, Pinker's thesis contradicts evolutionary theory. Such costly anatomical characters would have been subject to stringent adverse selection if they had not been adaptive for evolving humans. See the discussion of this issue in my new book, Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind.)

The trouble is, memes don't really exist as a distinct causal agency in evolution, and saying they do won't make it so; I predict that they will prove to be more elusive than the Higgs boson. As a metaphor for various forms of learned cultural "information", the term might be quite useful. It has the advantage of being more generic than such familiar terms as "ideas", "inventions", "behaviors", "artifacts", etc., and it is certainly preferable to such clumsy neologisms as Edward Wilson's "culturgens". But as a shaper of cultural evolution independently of the motivations, goals, purposes, compulsions and judgments -- in short the minds -- of human actors, memes rank right up there with the fiery phogiston and the heavenly aether. Indeed, there is no way I can conceive of to demonstrate (or falsify) the assertion that memes exercise an autonomous influence in human societies. Genes, and the coils of DNA that comprise the germ plasm, have an independent physical existence and known causal influences. Memes are labels that have been given to whatever we learn from one another -- "stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions," according to Blackmore. We are told that anything we imitate -- hair styles, clothes, applauding, dances, cigarette smoking, superstitions, jokes, religion, and democracy, not to mention science and technology, is a meme.

The conceit that minds are "robots vehicles" -- passive receptacles for various external inputs -- vastly oversimplifies both the neurobiology and the psychology of human learning processes, not to mention the dynamics of cultural life. "Memetics", as its practitioners like to call their hopeful monster (to borrow term), is a curious throwback to the Behaviorist tabula rasa hypothesis -- the claim that human behavior is wholly determined by external inputs ("reinforcers"). To the contrary, memes are always embedded in minds (anything external is only a "latent" meme), and it is minds that do the selecting and use of memes. Humans do not slavishly imitate whatever they see, or hear. They are highly selective, and manipulative, both in terms of their personal choices and in what they may attempt to foist on others. Denial of the primacy of human actors in the selection and transmission of social behavior and cultural information is bad psychology -- and bad anthropology. I'm reminded of a whimsical old poem about ghosts that I will take the liberty of bowdlerizing: "Yesterday upon the stair, I met a meme who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. I wish that he would go away."

But can't it also be said that ideas, ideologies, religions, books, music, technologies, etc., "compete" with one another? Yes, of course, but only metaphorically. To be precise, memes are differentially selected by prospective users, based on the users' preferences. Memes themselves are "powerless" despite the uncharacteristic "hype" of Scientific American, which recently featured a promotional article by Blackmore on "The Power of Memes". False analogies can do a lot of mischief, so it is important to keep the meme in its proper place as a term of convenience for a broad category of social phenomena and not as a distinct, self-serving causal agency. In so doing, we can also lend support to the null hypothesis: we call the shots on whether or not to imitate the purveyors of this particular meme.

Thought for the day: Is this scenario plausible? An convicted murderer stands up in a courtroom to plead for mercy: "Your honor, the reason I killed that person is that my memes were in competition with his memes. My memes made me do it."

A Seismic Shift

In the 1936 election, Franklin Roosevelt consolidated a new political coalition and a new political “paradigm” that dominated American politics for more than a generation. Marching under the banner of the “New Deal,” this new paradigm involved a set of liberal political values and goals, and it energized a new “activist” role for our national government that ultimately re-shaped our society in many different ways.

Though it may be too soon to know for sure, the indications are that Barack Obama’s election as President may result in another such seismic shift in America’s politics, from an anti-government, business-oriented conservatism to a more centrist liberalism. The new political coalition that produced Obama’s victory includes minorities and young voters, who voted in much greater numbers and overwhelmingly favored the Democrats, blue-collar Democrats who had strayed into Ronald Reagan’s coalition but who have returned to the fold, suburban middle class voters who have lost ground economically over the past decade or so, and such traditional Democratic voters as urban liberals,and the Irish and Jewish Americans. Indeed, even the solid (Republican) southern and western states are in play for the first time in 40 years.

Whether or not this new coalition will endure depends ultimately on how Obama and the Democrats perform in the next four years. If the reforms and changes of direction that Obama has promised are indeed realized (or at least in progress) – from a rationalized healthcare system to education, energy independence, climate change and job creation – and if he can also chart a new course for this country in international politics, a second term for Obama might resemble 1936. The Democrats could cement a new pattern of party loyalties, and a new political consensus, that would favor the continuation of a centrist-progressive paradigm into the foreseeable future.

Thought for the day: Barack Obama likes to say that change happens from the bottom up, not from the top down. But the truth is that it often involves a two-way street. A leader emerges with a compelling new vision, and he/she inspires a political movement that provides the support, and the power, to achieve that vision.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Lessons of the Titanic (and Iraq) Revisited

The very name “Titanic” evokes the image of one of history’s great, avoidable tragedies. On its maiden voyage in 1912, this luxurious and supposedly “unsinkable” new ocean liner – featuring many watertight compartments – hit an iceberg and sank in about two and one-half hours. Some 1500 of the 2200 people on board perished, most of them by freezing to death in the icy North Atlantic waters.

Over the years many lessons have been drawn from the numerous “what ifs” that played a role in this disaster – lessons that are still relevant today. What if there had been enough lifeboats for everyone on board? Incredibly, this was not required of merchant vessels in those days. There were only 20 lifeboats on Titanic, enough for about half of the passengers and crew, and many of these boats abandoned the stricken ship with partial loads.

What if the ship’s highly experienced captain, Edward Smith, had heeded the ice warnings radioed from other ships and had slowed down? Instead, he had ordered an increase to full speed earlier in the day at the behest of Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line (the ship’s proud owner), who was aboard for the maiden voyage and wanted to set a new record for early arrival in New York harbor.

What if the ship’s lookouts had been provided with binoculars? These had mysteriously gone missing before the departure. Or what if the duty officer on the bridge that fateful night (William Murdoch), when he first spotted the iceberg, had not mistakenly ordered that the engines be thrown into reverse, which actually reduced the ability of the ship to turn and avoid a collision?

What makes this long-ago episode still timely is the recent finding by researchers (reported in The New York Times) that many of the Titanic’s rivets were of poor quality. It seems there was a great shortage of rivets when the Titanic and a sister ship were being built simultaneously at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Northern Ireland – and many rivets were purchased indiscriminately from small, low-quality producers.

We now know, and this is confirmed by the sea floor investigations of Titanic’s broken hull by oceanographer Robert Ballard and his colleagues, that the iceberg did not penetrate the many steel plates that formed the ship’s outer skin. It popped the rivets that were holding them together and opened up a seam under the water line that was more than 200 feet long. Seawater immediately began to rush into six of the forward-most compartments. As these filled, water spilled over their open tops into compartments that were farther aft, enough water ultimately to sink the vessel.

So now another “what if” has been added to the list. What if the shipbuilder had been more scrupulous about using only the highest grade of rivets, even though it would have delayed the completion date for the much-heralded super-liner? If any one of these and other “what ifs” had been different, the Titanic’s fate might have been very different. Yet all of the particular causes obscure the most important factor. The thread that ties all of the “what ifs” together – call it the “ultimate cause” – resonates with many other historic disasters, including most recently the war in Iraq.

Underlying all of the many failures was an arrogant ambition – the single-minded pursuit of a grand objective by the key players that subverted their objectivity and prudence. They aspired to build “the ship of dreams” and trump an arch rival in the New York passenger trade, the Cunard Line. They were abetted by an over-weaning hubris (they apparently believed their own propaganda that the ship’s design made it practically unsinkable). And they were negligent in ignoring circumstances and facts on the ground that, if taken seriously and acted upon, would have obstructed or diminished their achievement. In short, it was the ego-driven pursuit of economic, political and personal goals in a context of supreme over confidence that created the fatal mix of “what ifs.”

Thus, most of the repeated ice warning signals from other ships were stuffed into the pockets of Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith rather than being posted on the bridge where the duty officer would see them. In fact, Captain Smith was not even on the bridge during the period of maximum danger, which was heightened by the rare combination of a dark, moonless night and a flat calm, making it extremely difficult to spot icebergs. Captain Smith was well aware of this condition (based on a documented conversation on the bridge earlier that night). Had he been on the bridge and fully alert to the threat that lay ahead, he might have proceeded more slowly. (At least one other ship in the area had actually stopped its engines). Perhaps, too, he might not have made the mistake of throwing the engines into reverse when the iceberg loomed.

As fate also had it, the person who was the chief designer of the ship and who had supervised its construction, Harland and Wolff’s managing director Robert Andrews, was also aboard for the maiden voyage and surely must have known about the rivets problem. The increased vulnerability of the ship’s hull and the extreme shortage of lifeboats created a serious risk and called for extra caution. (The original plan called for twice as many lifeboats, but many were ultimately omitted to allow more space for a passenger promenade.) However, none of the three principal actors aboard (Ismay, Smith and Andrews) seemed to have been concerned about the potential danger. The old expression “blind ambition” sums it up.

Our own modern-day Titanic disaster, the war in Iraq, shares with its namesake the same lethal combination of vaulting ambition, overconfidence and a failure to exercise due diligence. In the Iraq war as in the Titanic tragedy, passionate dedication to a cause, or an organization, or a leader can override objectivity and induce resistance or even a denial of contrary or conflicting information. As Mark Twain put it, history may not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Letter to The New York Times Regarding Primary Reforms

One option for reforming the primary system that I hope Senator Feinstein and the Congress will consider is a schedule with a sequence of (say) three Super-Tuesdays (or better yet, Super-Saturdays), where the states are clustered by size. Thus, a set of geographically-diverse small states (Iowa, New Hampshire and others) might lead off in February as initial “testing grounds,” followed by a group of mid-size states perhaps in March and by all of the large states in May. With such an arrangement, all states would have a voice, small states would play a significant part (and provide an opportunity for unknowns), but the outcome would not be definitively settled until the final inning. Such a system would also be more likely to arouse and sustain voter interest and participation. The problem, I know, is to get the states to cooperate. Maybe they could be persuaded (once again) to help form “a more perfect union.”

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Toward an Ecological Way of Death

If we are going to get serious about recycling, and about reducing our consumption of natural resources, why not recycle ourselves?

Traditional funeral practices are ecologically unsound. Both increasingly valuable prime land and precious resources are consumed in many millions of “bites” each year through the more or less elaborate funeral and burial rituals that occur in almost every country. Even cremation uses up fossil fuels and contributes to air pollution.

A better way would be to use our bodies to fertilize and nurture something that would be renewing and life-sustaining – like a tree. Think of it this way. If every currently-living human being – some 6.5 billion of us, and that’s a lot of biomass – were (in due course) to be buried under a newly planted tree as part of a vast, global reforestation effort, our rich endowment of painstakingly acquired organic and inorganic chemicals and minerals would greatly benefit the soil and the trees. In the bargain, the money we now spend on our various funeral practices could be re-directed to something more beneficial – namely, the reforestation of our fragile planet.

Here’s how it could work. Traditional funeral and memorial services could still be conducted as in the past, even to the point of using recyclable caskets, if deemed important. But instead of the traditional burial or cremation ritual, our bodies could be transported in biodegradable shrouds to designated “memorial forests,” where we would be ceremoniously “planted” together with a young tree of the appropriate kind. A small, durable memorial plaque might be placed near the tree, and the GPS coordinates would be recorded for the family and the public record. It might even be possible to arrange for a video recording, or even live (remote) coverage of the event if the family and friends desired it. And the fee that would be charged for the service would cover the transportation, planting, ceremonial and administrative costs, along with an “insurance” surcharge to provide for the possibility of needing to replant the tree during some “warranty period” (say 50-100 years).

Needless to say, this idea represents a radical change in our traditional burial customs, which have deep cultural and religious roots (if you’ll pardon the pun), but now is the time to begin thinking about changing these ultimately destructive practices in a way that would benefit future generations.

Thought for the day: For scientists, seeing is believing, but for religious fanatics (and paranoids) it’s the other way around.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Altruism Puzzle

Last Sunday’s New York Times magazine was devoted to illuminating altruism in its many contemporary forms. All the evidence presented in the Times’ articles supported the conclusion that the charitable spirit is still alive and well in our self-absorbed, greed-besotted society. Our deeper, more caring instincts have not been extinguished by our acquisitive culture.

And yet, in evolutionary terms human altruism remains a puzzle. In our willingness to sacrifice sometimes even our lives for our fellows, we resemble army ants, honey bees and a small number of other communal living species. How come?

In the lead-in article for the Times’ special issue, writer Jim Holt pondered this question and trotted out the reasoning of modern evolutionary psychology. Unfortunately, mainstream evolutionary psychologists are still dogmatically devoted to neo-Darwinism and the “selfish gene” paradigm, so their proposed explanation for human altruism is constricted and unconvincing. Neo-Darwinists recognize only sacrifices for close relatives (“kin selection”) and tit-for-tat reciprocities (“reciprocal altruism”), and maybe some social concern for one’s reputation and standing in the community. How the latter trait evolved is unclear and none of these supposed “mechanisms” can account for the soldiers who volunteer to die for their country or, for that matter, the suicide bombers who sacrifice their lives to kill “infidels.”

What’s missing from the evolutionary psychologists’ conventional wisdom is a perfectly logical explanation that is still taboo in some quarters – group selection. The reason is that evolutionary theorists have traditionally viewed the group selection hypothesis in a very restrictive way, so that it appears on its face to be very unlikely.

Without venturing too far into this theoretical thicket, suffice it to say that, for the most part, the issue of group selection has been debated without reference to the likely context in which humankind evolved. The accumulating evidence suggests that our ancestors evolved over several million years in small, closely cooperating groups of both kin and non-kin that formed interdependent “survival units.” They mostly inhabited highly dangerous and changeable environments where they were often in direct competition not only with other groups of their own kind but with an array of other group-living, pack-hunting predators – wild dogs, hyenas, lions and many others that are now extinct. So our ancestral hominid groups were not just abstract “gene pools” but multi-purpose survival units – “superorganisms” in the sociobiologists’ parlance. They collaborated most importantly in group defense against various threats, as well as in foraging, migrations, and in other ways, and the genes they were protecting and promoting were their own and those of their offspring, as well as close kin and some non-kin. Sacrifices for the good of the group could directly improve an altruist's fitness, because his/her offspring depended on the group. And the groups that were the most effective in promoting the interests of their groups (and minimizing cheating and “free-riders”) were differentially “selected”, as Darwin himself proposed in The Descent of Man.

An analogy can be found in each of our ten trillion or so cells. We now know that modern, eukaryotic (nucleated) cells are the product of a partnership that was formed between ancient bacterial ancestors of our mitochondria (the “energy factories” in each of our cells) and early one-celled protists. Over time, the partners became completely interdependent. They have a “shared fate.” And so, ultimately, do we and our progeny.

Thought for the day: There’s a good reason why, as the old saying goes, “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.” It’s not a matter of charity but a recognition that we depend on that wheel.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Electric Universe? Mea Culpa

Like most other non-physicists in the scientific community, I have always assumed that the evidence for the Big Bang, black holes, dark energy, and the like was rock-solid, and I even promoted this cosmology in one of my recent books. Alas! Now I am convinced that modern astrophysics is a pseudo-science with overtones of a religious dogma that fabricates stories to prop up its reigning deity and treats contradictory evidence as a heresy.

These are strong words, I know, but they are well supported in a mind-opening, paradigm shattering book called The Electric Sky by the emeritus electrical engineer (University of Massachusetts) cum astronomer, Donald E. Scott. Our mainstream view of the cosmos has been shaped by an interpretation of the red shift phenomenon that is demonstrably wrong, by a misplaced reliance on gravity as the primary shaping force in the universe, and by plugging up the serious deficiencies in this model with imaginary (unverifiable) theories about black holes, dark matter, dark energy, and other creations.

Meanwhile, compelling evidence that electric plasmas, electromagnetic forces, ubiquitous electric current “filaments” and related phenomena represent a vastly greater cosmic influence and account for 99% of the matter/energy in the universe has been rejected with thinly veiled hostility. Consider this simple household experiment: It takes only a small toy magnet to induce a gravity-defying leap by, say, a nail or a ball bearing. Electromagnetism is vastly more powerful than gravity, and it can be used in a plasma laboratory to simulate such cosmic phenomena as galaxies without recourse to mysterious, unseen shaping influences. We can see evidence of these cosmic plasmas in our own ionosphere and in the brilliant auroras that can light up the night sky. We can see them also in our solar corona and the misnamed “solar wind.” And we can see them shaping whole galaxies, like our Milky Way.

Nevertheless, modern astrophysicists are in denial and posit a plethora of ever more fanciful hypothetical entities – WIMPS, MACHOS, MOND, SIDM, SADM, FDM and so on – to mask the inherent deficiencies of a gravitation-only universe. Of course, a lot is at stake for the astrophysics cult. Emperors do not like to be unclothed. But more important, they are on the wrong side of a scientific revolution the like of which we have not seen since Copernicus and Galileo. It seems clear that the Big Bang never happened, that there are no black holes, dark energy, dark matter, MACHOS, or any other invisible and unverifiable mysteries. Moreover, it seems that our sun is not a gravity-driven thermonuclear reactor but a plasma pinch-driven generator. Even Einstein has been knocked off his pedestal. No wonder the astrophysicists “do not go gentle into that good night” (to borrow a famous line from poet Dylan Thomas). But don’t take my word for all this. Read Donald Scott’s book (including the open letter now signed by more than 400 scientists), or go online and visit the website of the distinguished electrical engineer Anthony Peratt ( or read his book, Physics of the Plasma Universe.

As I said, Mea Culpa.

Thought for the Day: Scott characterizes mainstream cosmology with the acronym: Fabricated Ad hoc Inventions Repeatedly Invoked in Efforts to Defend Untenable Scientific Theories (FAIRIE DUST). It is also a classic case of what can be called mathematical mysticism, an affliction that can be traced back to one of the founders of Western science, Pythagoras of Samos and his Pythagorean Brotherhood. It involves a conviction that the mathematical properties that can be found in the natural world are the underlying reality; if it’s logically tight it must be true. However, the map is not the territory, to quote a famous iconoclast, Alfred Korzybski.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Complexity is Just a Word!

What is complexity, asks author-journalist George Johnson in the science section of The New York Times a few years back? Below the headline, "Researchers on Complexity Ponder What It's All About," Johnson reports that there is still no agreed-upon definition, much less a theoretically-rigorous formalization, despite the fact that complexity is currently a "hot" research topic. Many books and innumerable scholarly papers have been published on the subject in the past few years, and there is even a journal, Complexity, devoted to this nascent science. Johnson quotes Dan Stein, chairman of the physics department at the University of Arizona: "Everybody talks about it. [But] in the absence of a good definition, complexity is pretty much in the eye of the beholder."

This is not to say that the researchers in this area have not been trying to define it. In the 1970s, Gregory Chaitin and Alexei Kolmogorov (independently) pioneered a mathematical measuring-rod that Chaitin called "algorithmic complexity" -- that is, the length of the shortest "recipe" for the complete reproduction of a mathematical treatment. The problem with this definition, as Chaitin concedes, is that random sequences are invariably more complex because in each case the recipe is as long as the whole thing being specified; it cannot be "compressed".

More recently, Charles Bennett has focused on the concept of "logical depth" -- the computational requirements for converting a recipe into a finished product. Though useful, it seems to be limited to processes in which there is a logical structure of some sort. It would seem to exclude the "booming, buzzing confusion" of the real world, where the internal logic may be problematical or only partially knowable -- say the immense number of context-specific chaotic interactions that are responsible for producing global weather "patterns", or the imponderable forces that will determine the future course of the evolutionary process itself.

A number of researchers, especially some of those who are associated with the Santa Fe Institute, believe that the key lies in the so-called "phase transitions" between highly ordered and highly disordered physical systems. An often-cited analogy is water, whose complex physical properties lie between the highly ordered state of ice crystals and the highly disordered movements of steam molecules. While the "Santa Fe Paradigm" may be useful, it also sets strict limits on what can be termed "complex". For instance, it seems to exclude the extremes associated with highly ordered or strictly random phenomena, even though there can be more or less complex patterns of order and more or less complex forms of disorder -- degrees of complexity that are not associated with phase transitions. (Indeed, random phenomena seem to be excluded by fiat from some definitions of complexity.)

To confuse matters further, a distinction must be made between what could be labeled "objective complexity" -- the "embedded" properties of a physical phenomenon and "subjective complexity" -- its "meaning" to a human observer. As Timothy Perper has observed (on-line communication), the equation w = f(z) is structurally simple, but it might have a universe of meaning depending upon how its terms are defined. Indeed, information theory is notorious for its reliance on quantitative, statistical measures and its blindness to meaning -- where much can be made of very few words. The telephone directory for a large metropolitan area contains many more words than a Shakespeare play, but is it more complex? Furthermore, as Elisabet Sahtouris has pointed out (on-line communication), the degree of complexity that we might impute to a phenomenon can depend upon our frame of reference for viewing it. If we adopt a broad, "ecological" perspective we will see many more factors, and relationships, at work than if we adopt a "physiological" perspective. When Howard Bloom (on-line communication) quotes the line "To see the World in a Grain of Sand..." from William Blake's famous poem, "Auguries of Innocence", it reminds us that even a simple object can denote a vast pattern of relationships, if we choose to see it that way. Accordingly, subjective complexity is a highly variable property of the phenomenal world.

Perhaps we need to go back to the semantic drawing-board. Complexity is, after all, a word -- a verbal construct, a mental image. Like the words "electron" or "snow" or "blue" or "tree", complexity is a shorthand tool for thinking and communicating about various aspects of the phenomenal world. Some words may be very narrow in scope. (Presumably all electrons are alike in their basic properties, although their behavior can vary greatly.) However, many other words may hold a potful of meaning. We often use the word "snow" in conversation without taking the trouble to differentiate among the many different kinds of snow, as serious skiers (and Inuit Eskimos) routinely do. Similarly, the English word "blue" refers to a broad band of hues in the color spectrum, and we must drape the word with various qualifiers, from navy blue to royal blue to robin's egg blue (and many more), to denote the subtle differences among them. So it is also, I believe, with the word "complexity"; it is used in many different ways and encompasses a great variety of phenomena. (Indeed, it seems that many theorists, to suit their own purposes, prefer not to define complexity too precisely.)

The "utility" of any word, whether broad or narrow in scope, is always a function of how much information it imparts to the user(s). Take the word "tree", for example. It tells you about certain fundamental properties that all trees have in common. But it does not tell you whether or not a given tree is deciduous, whether it is tall or short, or even whether it is living or dead. The same shortcoming applies also to the concept of "complexity". Although there may be some commonalities between a complex personality, a complex wine, a complex piece of music and a complex machine, the similarities are not obvious. Each is complex in a different way, and their complexities cannot be reduced to an all-purpose algorithm. Moreover, the differences among them are at least as important as any common properties.

What in fact does the word "complexity" connote. One of the leaders in the complexity field, Seth Lloyd of MIT, took the trouble to compile a list of some three dozen different ways in which the term is used in scientific discourse. Yet this exercise produced no blinding insight. When asked to define complexity, Lloyd told Johnson: "I can't define it for you, but I know it when I see it."

Rather than trying to define what complexity is, perhaps it would be more useful to identify the properties that are commonly associated with the term. I would suggest that complexity often (not always) implies the following attributes: (1) a complex phenomenon consists of many parts (or items, or units, or individuals); (2) there are many relationships/interactions among the parts; and (3) the parts produce combined effects (synergies) that are not easily predicted and may often be novel, unexpected, even surprising.

At the risk of inviting the wrath of the researchers in this field, I would argue that complexity per se is one of the less interesting properties of complex phenomena. The differences, and the unique combined properties (synergies) that arise in each case, are vastly more important than the commonalities. If someone does develop a grand, unifying definition-description of complexity, I predict that it will add very little to the tree of knowledge (pardon the pun). But that shouldn't deter us from trying; the very effort to do so will surely enrich our understanding.

Thought for the day: Complexity is a qualitative property that we apply to both apples and oranges -- to borrow a cliché. They are both fruits and grow on trees but also differ from each other in important ways. Despite the many fruitless attempts (pardon the pun) to develop a general definition for the term, perhaps its only universal trait is that it taxes the human mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What is Natural Selection?

The truth is there are a variety of definitions out there in the mountainous literature on evolution, and there is no consensus, even among biologists, about how Darwin’s central concept should be defined. One reason is that natural selection does not refer to a thing, or a discrete “mechanism.” It’s really a metaphor – what I call an “umbrella category” – that directs our attention to a fundamental aspect of the history of life on Earth.

Given the misunderstandings that are evident in various writings about evolution, it’s worth re-stating Darwin’s basic idea. In a nutshell, he posited that the history of life on Earth has involved a very long, trans-generational process characterized by both continuities and “progressive” (and sometimes regressive) functional developments over time. Moreover, both the continuities and the changes that have occurred in the course of evolution have been the ultimate result of a causal dynamic that is internal to the process itself. It was not imposed from outside.

In essence, this causal dynamic is a process in which the outcomes (in terms of survival and reproduction) in each generation of living organisms are determined in situ by the functional relationships and interactions that occur between organisms and their specific environments. Both the organism and its environment are important players in this dynamic, and it is absolutely wrong to say that inanimate environments do any “selecting”. Even as a metaphor, this is misleading. Likewise, it is onerous to say that something is “selected for.” It implies premeditation.

Darwin characterized this dynamic as “natural selection,” but he well understood (despite his sometimes flagrant rhetoric) that natural selection is not a concrete mechanism, and it does not actually do anything. In fact, it was based on an analogy with artificial selection by animal breeders. Nor did he claim that natural selection was the exclusive agency of evolutionary change; he was well aware of the complexities.

A crucial point about Darwin’s theory, which is often overlooked by his critics, is that it rests on the fundamental assumption that life is a contingent and often precarious process (a “struggle for existence” as Darwin put it) and that “earning a living” (and reproducing) in the “economy of nature” is the basic vocation for all life forms. In other words, in evolution there is no free lunch.

Given this premise, and given the well-documented fact that living systems can vary greatly in their functional capabilities – their ability to earn a living in a given environment – it follows that there will be differential success in surviving and reproducing. So natural selection refers to the survival/reproduction outcomes in each generation, including both the continuities and the changes -- the weeding in as well as the weeding out. (I’m partial to biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s distinction between “normalizing” or stabilizing selection, positive selection, and negative selection.) Darwin also adopted the Malthusian assumption of relentless population growth, which greatly intensifies competition for the means of subsistence, but this assumption is not essential to the theory and is not always the case in nature.

So why is there no “standard definition” of natural selection. In part, no doubt, the very subtlety of the idea challenges our efforts to provide a simple one-sentence definition. But partly too, I suspect the differences reflect varying degrees of bias among those who are strongly pro-natural selection and those who would wish to minimize or even reject Darwin’s theory. The pro-Darwinians often speak about natural selection as if it were an active, even omnipotent selecting agency. Thus, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson asserted that "The mechanism of adaptation is natural selection....[It] usually operates in favor of maintained or increased adaptation to a given way of life." Similarly, biologist Ernst Mayr informed us that "Natural selection does its best to favor the production of programs guaranteeing behavior that increases fitness." And, in his discipline-defining volume Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson assured us that "natural selection is the agent that molds virtually all of the characters of species."

On the other side of the fence are anti-Darwinian theorists like biologist Robert Reid, in his book Biological Emergences, who claims that natural selection is “irrelevant” to the explanation of complexity in the natural world. Evolution is an internally-driven, “emergent” process, he tells us, and natural selection is mostly “obstructionist”. At best it may play a minor, “fine-tuning” and “stabilizing” role by “weeding out” unfit variants. Likewise, biologist Lynn Margulis and her son and co-author, Dorion Sagan, while not hostile to natural selection, nevertheless downplay its role in making their case for “symbiogenesis” as a creative agency in evolution. In their book, Acquiring Genomes, they speak of natural selection as “a strictly subtractive process.”

In other words, some theorists see natural selection as the “creator” while others see it as the “executioner”. It’s analogous to a situation in which two critics, viewing an old-fashioned black and white photograph, get into an argument about the role of the negative. One critic asserts that, since the paper used for the print is white to begin with, only the black portions can be attributed to the influence of the negative. On the contrary, the other critic argues, the negative is only responsible for the white portion of the print, since that is where the negative acted to block the developer light from passing through to darken the print. In fact, the negative controls both the light and dark portions of the print by virtue of its ability either to block the light or allow it to pass through. And so it is also with natural selection. To repeat, natural selection both weeds in and weeds out evolutionary novelties, and gives a pass to prior developments that still work.

This formulation can be illustrated with a textbook example of evolutionary change -- "industrial melanism." Until the Industrial Revolution, a "cryptic" (light-colored) species of the peppered moth (Biston betularia) predominated in the English countryside over a darker "melanic" form (Biston carbonaria). The wing coloration of B. betularia provided camouflage from avian predators as the moths rested on the trunks of lichen-encrusted trees, an advantage that was not shared by the darker form. But as soot blackened the tree trunks in areas near growing industrial cities, in due course the relative frequency of the two forms was reversed; the birds began to prey more heavily on the now more visible cryptic species and overlooked the darker form.

The question is, where in this example was natural selection "located?" The short answer is that natural selection encompasses the entire configuration of factors that combined to influence differential survival and reproduction. In this case, an alteration in the relationship between the coloration of the trees and the wing pigmentation of the moths, as a consequence of industrial pollution, was an important proximate factor. But this factor was important only because of the inflexible resting behavior of the moths and the feeding habits and perceptual abilities of the birds. Had the moths been subject only to insect-eating bats that use "sonar" rather than a visual detection system to catch insects on the wing, the change in background coloration would not have been significant. Nor would it have been significant had there not been genetically based patterns of wing coloration in the two forms that were available for "selection" in the two forms. (Later studies concerning the additional influence of air pollution can be left out of the discussion for our purpose.)

Accordingly, one cannot properly speak of "mechanisms" or fix on a particular "selection pressure" in explaining the causes of evolutionary change via natural selection. One must focus on the interactions that occur within an organism and between the organism and its environment(s), inclusive of other organisms; natural selection is about adaptively significant changes in organism-environment relationships. But this begs the question: What factors are responsible for bringing about changes in organism-environment relationships? The answer, of course, is many things. It could be a functionally-significant mutation, a chromosomal transposition, a change in the physical environment, a change in one species that affects another species, or it could be a change in behavior that results in a new organism-environment relationship. In fact, a whole sequence of changes may ripple through a complex pattern of relationships. For instance, a climate change might alter the ecology, which might induce a behavioral shift to a new habitat, which might encourage an alteration in nutritional habits, which might precipitate changes in the interactions among different species, resulting ultimately in the differential survival and reproduction of alternative morphological characters and the genes that support them. (An excellent illustration of this causal dynamic can be found in the long-running research program in the Galápagos Islands among "Darwin's finches" by the husband and wife team, Peter and Rosemary Grant.)

The bottom line is this: It is the functional effects or consequences of various organism-environment pattern-changes, insofar as they may impact on differential survival, that constitute the "causes" of natural selection. Another way of putting it is that causation in evolution also runs backwards from our conventional view of things; in evolution, functional effects are also causes. It is an iterative process. To use Ernst Mayr's (1965) well-known distinction, it is the "proximate" functional effects which result from any change in the organism-environment relationship that are the causes of the "ultimate" (transgenerational) selective changes in the genotype, and the gene pool of a species.

Thought for the Day: “When the words are confused, the mind is also” -- Seneca