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


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.


Geoff said...

Yes! This question seems so much larger than a mere technical point, one that reaches into the very depths of our collective worldview. Recognizing group selection may require a change of political and sociological ontology. While scholarship exists around the relations between Darwin’s views and the zeitgeist of industrializing England, with the demise of Stephen Jay Gould and the quieting of Richard Lewontin, I’m unaware of similar efforts for contemporary evolutionary theory. And so taboos exist far longer than they need. This prompted me to Google for the following quotes;

To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle. -- George Orwell

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.-- Galileo Galilei

First they ignore it, then they laugh at it, then they say they knew it all along. --Alexander Humbold

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. --Arthur Schopenhauer

The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. --Stephen Hawking

Synergy Live said...

Thanks for your comment. I see a growing band of renegades who are, in various ways, pushing for a paradigm shift. This is summarized in my recent book, Holistic Darwinism (U. Chicago 2005).

I'm also fond of another quote: "The truth has long been known, and has been the bond of the wisest spirits. This old truth -- reach for it." (Goethe)

Geoff said...

I have quickly and appreciatively scanned your book, Peter, and am looking forward to a leisurely feasting and digesting.

Then I'll settle in for a long wait for others to catch up and on, doing my bit to contribute to the momentum.

Synergy Live said...

You, and others, might like to know that a number of my published papers can be found at my website, along with blurbs and introductory chapters for Holistic Darwinism and an earlier book, Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind,(Cambridge, 2003). The web address is: