Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Creative Science, Naturally

[I am posting this to preserve a copy of it as much as to share it. It is a book review originally published in Fall, 2003 Entelechy. ]

A review of Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind written by Peter Corning
by Todd I. Stark

In Nature's Magic, Peter Corning offers us good news and bad news. The he good news is that chance, necessity, and natural selection aren't the only factors in our evolution. There is also a very real role for purpose (or more specifically, purposiveness.) The role of purposiveness has continued to increase over time.

The bad news is that our efforts to seek an underlying grand law or force that governs history may be fundamentally flawed. We may be more responsible for our own survival than we have so far been willing to recognize. The true teleonomy inherent in Corning's view gives us a creative (and destructive) role that is discounted in theories that rely on grand laws of history. Corning refers to the various people who have searched in vain for an inherent mathematical law of evolution as "Neo-Pythagoreans" after the cult surrounding the legendary mathematician. He counts various well-known contemporary complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman and physicists like Steven Weinberg among them.

Corning doesn't see the world as necessarily a glorious self-maintaining Gaia, he sees it as a place where living things through their relations and interactions have come to have certain responsibility for their own fate. This becomes an awesome burden once we apply this view to humans, where we take on the role of the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Goethe's (and Disney's) tale. The apprentice knows just enough magic to get himself into serious trouble.

The starting point is Arthur Koestler's insight that "true innovation occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate." Peter Corning takes this insight to heart and explores its remarkable implications, applying this "astonishing capacity" to nature in general.

The essence of the argument is not that nature creates things that cannot be explained or things that cannot be understood, but that no grand laws of nature predict her fruits. In effect, evolution is grounded in nature's astonishing capacity to create beyond what we foresee at every juncture.

Corning's theory of complexity in evolution is based on synergy, by which he simply and elegantly means the myriad effects of combining things where the result doesn't resemble what we'd expect simply by adding them together: the whole is different than the sum of the parts.

Corning's "Holistic Darwinism" is a way of viewing variety and selection in nature which is at once is fully consistent with the neo-Darwinian synthesis and also provides theoretical bridges with the cybernetic theory of self-regulating systems and much of the body of scientific literature in social and political sciences. Holistic Darwinism shifts the focus in natural selection from selection itself as a causal force to where the variety comes from.

Corning leans heavily upon John Maynard Smith's concept of "synergistic selection." If unrelated individuals are often locked into a shared reproductive fate with others, as Corning suggests, then it is reasonable to assume that they will evolve strategies for cooperation, not for "altruism" per se but for their own interests.

This is an ambitious task for a single book, but at least the foundation is put down extremely well here, persuading us that nature continually yields variety that is neither predictable nor random, but fundamentally economic in its operation. In other words, Holistic Darwinism sees nature as a great marketplace where the functional outcomes of new innovations are continually shaped by the consequences of their costs and benefits.

If combined effects in nature are really different in general than we would expect from simply putting things together, there are some unexpected implications. For one thing, it implies that history matters. If things combine in new ways to produce new features in nature that are not simply an extension of the laws governing the parts, then those new features can potentially have meaningful functional outcomes that play a role in natural selection. This is the core of Corning's argument.

Corning boldly claims that Lamarck was right after all (in a sense). Not that giraffes can create new genes by stretching their necks, but that they can create new ecological niches through their behavior that can later be reinforced by natural selection because of the successful outcomes of those new behaviors.

In a nutshell: "synergy" is combined effects all around us in various forms, it plays a causal role in differential reproductive fitness in a highly context-specific way, and it provides a scientific alternative to overreaching grand laws of history.

Instead of theorizing a vague new force or seeking a new law to help explain how natural selection can lead to biological complexity, Peter Corning supplies a fresh way of looking at the whole puzzle of complexity. He does this by reversing the usual logic about cooperation in living things. Rather than living things somehow cooperating to produce new outcomes through some unexplained form of 'altruism,' Corning sees 'nature's magic' of synergies underlying cooperation.

Corning makes his case with a massive amount of data drawn from a wide variety of fields. With obviously decades worth of research behind Nature’s Magic, it covers a lot of ground and has links to a number of other theories in both economics and biology. Because it is so lucid and well-written, it ought to appeal to a wide range of readers, from academics interested in systems science, bioeconomics, and the philosophy of biology, to those without an academic background in biology who want to keep up with what will most likely be a significant part of the future of biological science.

Todd I. Stark is a computer consultant and freelance medical and science writer. He is also an obsessive reader and has written hundreds of book reviews for Amazon. His formal background is in computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and psychology at Drexel University. His academic interests include hypnosis and suggestibility research, social psychology, and most recently, evolutionary approaches to behavioral science. Todd briefly moderated the HBE-L list on Yahoo for discussions in evolutionary psychology.

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