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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2004 Volume 4: 57-65 ( 1 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/04/corning.html

Book Review

Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind 
By Peter Corning
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Reviewed by James Brody, PhD.

Aldous Huxley wrote “the charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different” (1952, p. 259). Corning would agree.

In Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind the first major claim that Corning makes is: selection is a necessary but not a sufficient player in evolution. That is, evolution is a ménage-a-cinq and selection parties not only with chance and necessity but also teleonomy and synergy. Corning’s second big point and his banner of twenty years: “synergy” underlies the unexpected outcomes from linking two formerly separate entities (e.g., stone axes and wooden handles). Further, the outcome must collapse if you remove one contributor from a matrix of them. Third, plan for the future but don’t believe anyone who predicts it.

The Story Line

Corning both rounds up and defends unusual suspects: behavior as a catalyst for evolution, Lamarckian inheritance of environments, the unpredictability of evolution, and progressivism. He also posits a cause, “synergy.” Corning defines both synergy and the tests for it, gives examples of synergy, and describes synergistic outcomes from stromatolites to Gaia. Synergy builds things but cultures or species also vanish if they lose a synergistic ingredient. Evolution is progressive, arising from both combinatorial novelties and purposiveness: thus, behavior ratchets evolution and sometimes catalyzes it. Corning argues that humans are purposive combinatorial wizards but that culture evolves as much from happenstance as from our imagination or genes. He also both revises some of human history and debunks attempts by scientists to predict futures.

Two Players from a Cast of Five

We are familiar with Corning’s first two performers, chance and necessity. Likewise for “selection,” natural selection's heir: one word does the work formerly done by two if we don't load intentionality onto it. The remaining two players, synergy and teleonomy require attention here.


Synergy exists if several elements contribute to a result and if the absence of any one element destroys it. Synergy waits for our recognition and applause and has done so ever since Corning's 1983 book, The Synergism Hypothesis. Synergy is surprising, lively, and ever new, an essential for the evolution of complex forms and complex lifestyles. Synergy enhances outcomes from partnerships between molecules or between critters. Iron and tin combine into steel, spears are more lethal when we add a throwing lever. (A more personal synergy of my own: a jigger of Harvey’s turns a fine chili to ambrosia.) Thereby, selection has a different choice and cultures variegate.

Synergy is easily induced but not easily replicated or predicted: if a woman, then she’s truly a liberated one. Such may account for her lack of popularity, she’s an excuse rather than a recipe. After all, once you've described her, there's not a lot you can do but watch for her to appear again. There are no strings and levers above her joints, she does not dance to an engineer's tune, and she finds her own partners. These characteristics also apply both to the incremental and to the sudden steps that we find in evolution. They create, in Corning’s words, a progressive evolution but neither a predictable nor an irreversible one.

We are familiar with synergy but in an odd way: the patent office! Invent something and assure your rights to the profits from whatever uses that other people find for your gadget. Synergy also creates equity disputes: how much should a psychiatrist charge for the 10 minutes wherein he prescribes a medicine that lets you keep your wife, children, job, and home?

Synergy, for all its fun, has difficulties within science. Charles Murray (2003, p. 156) reminds us:”...the invention of hay, horseshoes, the horse collar, the machine-made screw, the cultivation of legumes, the eraser, board games, distillation, reading glasses, the rudder, the interrogative sentence, aspirin, the mirror, waterworks, chairs, and stairs...describing a single, seemingly innocuous change in technology that produced a cascade of momentous results...This is an entertaining way to present the history of science, but it is a variety of just-so story...Tracing any one path among the thousands of nodes in this network can provide an illuminating story, but it cannot easily claim to be a causal story.” Ouch! (This said, Murray next lists 30 pages of disconnected, significant events in the arts and sciences!) Impression: Bottom line: synergy allows us neither to predict the future nor to explain the past. Synergy fits within a context of discovery but not one of justification.


"All creatures living are in search of a better world." (Popper, 1992). Corning resurrects purpose and intent but uses “teleonomy” and applies it to individual organisms, not to evolution. He also protests biology’s neglect of the organism’s role in its own evolution but Corning laments in a desert with a like-minded prophet atop every dune. Except for a narrow interval of recent history, biologists often credited plants and animals with “purposiveness.” Corning gives plenty of examples while he protests the lack of recognition that biological research and neodarwinian theory give to them. I agree in regard to our immediate past.

Aristotle, however, discerned purpose in living creatures and their development: his thread can be traced forward through centuries. Aquinas saw “intention” and Spinoza saw a striving toward self-affirmation, Leibniz credited persons as being the source for their acts (See Allport, 1955). Before they went on to discuss other things, even J. B. Watson in 1924 acknowledged human instincts and Skinner in 1966 anticipated Cosmides and Tooby in 1992: cultures evolve because of man’s propensities to be reinforced in certain ways.

More recently, Ed Wilson (1975/2000) refers to niche construction as “the ultimate adaptation.” Dawkins (1982) told us about extended phenotypes, Bouchard et al. (1996) talk about "experience producing drives." Gerhart & Kirschner (1997) thoroughly discuss cells and other components as exploratory systems that generate algorithmic searches and repeat those that achieve specific outcomes. (Selection acts within the ontogeny of every organism and its organs. Thorndike called selection’s behavioral emergent “positive reinforcement”! Bouchard and his team noticed the narrow range of outcomes even for complex adaptive systems known as “identical twins” who grew up in separate homes. Every human is an exploratory system, either in combination with parents or with peers. Intriguing point: channeling is evident in human development, whether for structure, consciousness, or opinion but Corning resists the same idea for evolution. In contrast, other scientists imagine channeling, a.k.a. orthogenesis, to exist not only for individuals but also for species and for evolution: while there are lots of possibilities, the domain is restricted. See especially Belew & Mitchell, 1994, Solé & Goodwin, Kauffman, 2001).

Sterelny & Griffiths (1999) contrast “internalism” and “externalism” in biology and conclude that, in regard to organizing data, a tie exists between them. Kauffman (2000) considers niche building to be a property of life itself. Turner (2000) reviews nests and the outcomes for many creatures that manufacture their settings and modify themselves. Worms, for example, create a communal extended kidney from tunnels. De Waal (2001) opens many doors into the phenomenon of culture in nonhuman primates. Brody, Bloom, & Turner (2001) picked up on niche selection as putting a second point on natural selection’s arrow: elements of settings statistically compete for retention by organisms! Gould (2002) also pleads for the role of “constraints” not only in channeling development but also for initiating it (a really tough sell that no one but Gould would try!). Corning should also enjoy Lewontin’s observation that evolution is a long history of organisms’ finding devious routes around constraints. Odling-Smee et al. (2003) sold “niche building” to several journals and to Princeton University Press.

Nonetheless, the word, “teleonomy,” reminds us by its novelty and very ugliness that something important occurs, that organisms show purpose: a fox chews its way out of a trap, humans are not the only creatures to apply personal will, emergent networks sometimes take on living properties (Brody, in press). Scientists eventually must deal with animism, it’s now too important to be left to clerics and barristers. We will find not only intentions but also consciousness and premeditation in C elegans (Brody, 2003; in preparation). Even the neodarwinians will get over their feuds with Gould and join the mainstream once more.

Fortune Telling: Fun to Do...

We evolved from order and variation and our minds were selected to manage both attributes: we arrange the former but explore the latter. Learning is one of many exploratory systems that match our personal genetic propensities to detailed, sometimes very local, environmental features. Thus, “prediction” may be one of those “adaptations”...fun to do, easy to learn, and attempted by every normal human...for survival in linear worlds where fatalism is fatal. We are also fascinated by domains wherein prediction is less certain: both humans and cats require nine lives to underwrite the insurance on our curiosity. Fortune telling, thus, extends prediction to more chaotic realms such as the weather, suicides, love, or the outcomes of a battle and we pay meteorologists, palm readers, and psychiatrists for such things. Vikings consulted bones of dead chickens; their intellectual offspring, Jacob Bronowski, gave us poetry when he talked about a sense of the future.

Surprises can be fun but we often see unpredictability as a measure of our ignorance and not as a truth about essentials. E. O. Wilson (1988, p. 138) remarked in an interview with Robert Wright: “I have always wanted to transform messy subjects into scientifically orderly subjects...to put things right, so to speak.” I may be a cat batting flies but, like Ed, I enjoy weaving order while using synergy for raw material and inspiration. I seek a mix of variation and order just as Darwin did and try to change either one into the other.

Thus, I enjoy surprises but resist believing that things just happen. Chemists are better now when arranging polymers than 20 years ago, they also employ natural selection to make some of those arrangements (Lehn, 2002). Whether in plants, mice, or men, we manipulate genes as never before. I also believe that humans will eventually manage both themselves and Gaia. Show us kinship and we care more for other creatures. Assure prosperity and both wars and children become less likely. As Peter cautions, however, there are a lot of surprises and his quote from Einstein about the end of the universe applies here: “Wait and see...”

Bottom Lines

Peter takes on a lot and he tells his story without selling his word. The problem for synergy and for teleonomy may be less one of recognition but more one of measurement and prediction. Unfortunately for wider consideration of synergy, linear outcomes pay: they lead to publications, research funds, and new toys at Apple or Wal-Mart. They are also vital when evolutionists defend their scientific credibility. Indeed, science may be an emergent not only of “gathering” (correlations) but also of tool making (functional relationships). When given a choice between stories and fingertips, we usually defend our story but follow our fingertips; our children extend our methods but also mend our story. (Thus goes another exploratory system!)

Chimps fish for ants and model the behavior for both novice chimps and anthropologists; the anthropologists, however, often don’t catch ants but write about their failure. Similarly, we can talk about purpose, surprise, and progress but we can’t lay our hands on them and until that changes, science will leave purpose to our mothers and their emergents: philosophers, lawyers, and theologians. For these people, accountability pivots as much on our intentions as on our actions.

John Murray and other Victorian publishers first made scientific texts available at volume and for reasonable fees (Browne, 2002). Thus, in a synergistic way, Murray did as much for evolutionary theory as Darwin. Word processors, however, do now for authors what publishers once did. Dispersed, loosely-connected clumps of scientists obey selectionism: a modern exploratory system, they investigate specialized environments and publish evolutionary possibilities, much like a front of army ants, a pack of hounds, an array of dendrites, or a growing tree. And like the hounds, they immediately synchronize, lining up and yelping when they find a scent.

Corning and the rest of us work in the best of times!

Self-selected Darwinian revisionists parade on the shelves at Barnes or Borders. Galton, Bateson, Haldane, Wright, Fisher, Baldwin, Mayr, Huxley, and Simpson first stepped forward. Hamilton, Gould, Sigmund, Gee, Bloom, Kauffman, Prigogine, Odling-Smee, Turner, and a gaggle of anthropologists followed. Barabasi and Strogatz now march into biology through the portal of network physics. So will Corning and, like all the rest of us, through a doorway and in a costume that he manufactures.

There are similar books, sometimes with fewer actors. Gee (1999) presents a cladist approach to evolution, one that complements Corning’s as do the books by Kauffman (2000), Wright (2000), and Bloom (2000). I suggest that you acquire and read the set. (They’re all in paper: about $80 will keep you preoccupied and off the streets for a year. Kauffman will probably be the most difficult.) Under sponsorship of the Santa Fe Institute, Belew and Mitchell (1996) edited a marvelous collection of original papers and reprinted classics on the topic of adaptive individuals in evolving populations. Schull introduces the papers by Lamarck, Baldwin, Morgan, Wm. James, and others, and credits Lamarck not only for giving us a word, “biology” but also for challenging dualism and recognizing that “...(a)daptive plasticity in individual organisms can play a crucial role in biological evolution.” Lamarck made other fundamental contributions. Schull also explains that not all of Lamarck’s problems came from his position on the genetic heritability of acquired traits: “...his books were poorly written and of uneven quality.”


Of course, there’s an Afterword in Nature’s Magic...Peter’s one of those kids who has to tell you just one more damned thing at bedtime. So am I.

1) He documents lots of modern evolutionary theory. For example, I value his summary of anthropology’s fables on the relative contributions of warfare, of hunters and gathers, and of other variables to human nature. Another example, the Lamarckian transmission of environments through acquired behaviors applies to more than 200 species and the scientific data go back longer than I imagined. There are many such essays that reward time spent exploring Nature’s Magic.

2) Corning neglected Raff’s The Shape of Life, a foundation text for evo-devo. Raff describes evolution as depending on gene duplication, specialization, cooption, the inhibition of older developmental cascades, and linkage between parallel developmental sequences (Raff, 1996). Evo-devo (the evolution of individual development, traced by embryology and molecular genetics) makes neodarwinians gag but is a key thread and is the stuff whereby some important synergies become orderly. (Hox genes maintain similarity between creatures but force changes in our explanations for them. See Gould, 2002, esp. Chapter 10.) Raff’s ideas also provide useful metaphors for the coevolution of thought and culture.

3) Corning suspects emergent networks as a facile, illusory explanation. I agree with his suspicion but keep my exuberance for them. The mass of data imply that emergent networks were and remain a vital part of our EEA, more so than any canine or glacier. Raff’s model can be a recipe for constructing an emergent network. Genes that don’t follow network payoffs won’t be around very long. Indeed, the structure of Peter’s book is consistent with an emergent network: a major concept (a hub), three or four smaller ones, and a multitude of minor supporters connected to the hubs.

4) His taking on so much perhaps led to the few gaffs that I found: for example, Corning’s “H. Mark Baldwin” is listed as “J. Mark Baldwin” on Baldwin’s paper of 1896. Where in H was the copy editor?

5) Peter praises “strong reciprocity” that enforces cooperation despite its costs to both enforcers and targets. I fear strong reciprocity, particularly in the context of declining resources such as we now have. Strong reciprocity suppresses individual differences, people swarm to demagogues. Individual differences, however, often arise from the different worlds constructed by our differing genes: make us act alike and most of us will be not only uncomfortable but also liars. Many Afghanis retrieved television sets from their basements after Americans bombed the Taliban.

6) Howard Bloom’s influence is evident in Nature’s Magic and Peter thanks him (compare with Global Brain in regard to some content and style). Peter, however, is a more conservative writer than Howard but retains wit and readability. Corning and Bloom are both “5-factor theorists,” optimists, and more comfortable with histories than predictions. And these guys give you plenty of facts that you can steal for your own dark purposes. I also envision Peter on “Coast to Coast” with Art Bell although Corning might be too sane for Bell’s audiences: Bloom has appeared five or six times.

Finally, I suspect that we are micro-scale fractals of dramas we watch in the heavens. It’s possible, once again but in an opposite way, to see both constellations and humans acting out parallel scripts. I also suspect that our universe explores a phase transition between chaos and order as does every living cell and every infant. Extremes of “cooperation” or of “rebellion” allow neither synergy nor evolution. Thus, Peter should give equal recognition to the simplifiers...fungi and worms recycle our dead, rebellions protect our personal will, and dispassionate bulldozers may yet save Rome and Romans.


Corning asked me to review Nature’s Magic, a 20 years’ quest for him but I’m reminded of a circle of chimp females inspecting a new infant: the mother shows awesome levels of trust! Todd Stark (2003) wrote an earlier review and encouraged my also doing one. Thanks to an instigator, Howard Bloom, and another thanks to the marvelous staff at Barnes and Noble in Devon, PA: while you still can, buy your books from a seller that you can touch...


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Brody, J. (2004). Review of Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind by Peter Corning. Human Nature Review. 4: 57-65.

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