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Fulfilling von Bertalanffy's Vision
The Synergism Hypothesis as a General Theory of Biological and Social Systems

Peter A. Corning, Ph.D.
Institute for the Study of Complex Systems
119 Bryant Street, Suite 212
Palo Alto, CA 94301 USA

Phone: (650) 325-5717
Fax: (650) 325-3775
Email: pacorning@complexsystems.org

Prepared for the Celebration of the,
100th Anniversary of Ludwig von Bertalanffy's Birthday,
University of Technology, Vienna, Austria.
November 1-4, 2001


There can be no doubt that Ludwig von Bertalanffy's work represents one of the most important theoretical contributions of the 20th century. Among many other things, his writings (and his personal activities) inspired the systems science movement, a multi-disciplinary effort to develop general principles for systems of all kinds. (Von Bertalanffy played a direct role in founding the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Research, later renamed the International Society for the Systems Sciences, but many other systems and cybernetics organizations have also made important contributions over the years.)

In the early days, during the 1950s and 1960s, it was hoped that a search for 'isomorphies' and common properties in various kinds of systems would in time illuminate the underlying causal dynamics and ultimately lead to a unified, 'general' theory of systems. Although much has been learned about the nature of complex systems and their dynamics during the past half century, the dream of an overarching theory remains elusive; 'general systems theory' does not seem to have produced a general theory of systems. Indeed, many theorists these days doubt that any universal theory is possible. It is said that the many different kinds of systems in nature and human societies are so diverse, so different in character, that the commonalities between them are trivially important compared to their deep differences. Nevertheless, over the past 50 years we have gained a much better understanding of 'how' complex systems work.

Conspicuously missing from the mainstream literature in systems theory, however, is a comparable sense of progress toward understanding 'why' complex systems exist in nature. The systems sciences seem to lack a causal theory (or theories) that address the problem of accounting for the 'progressive' evolution of complexity over time. Some systems scientists have looked to physics and, more specifically, to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, for an explanation of why complexity exists in nature. The most notable example of this is Ilya Prigogine's work on the role of energy in producing what he calls 'dissipative structures.' Prigogine, echoing Herbert Spencer in the 19th century, speaks of having discovered a 'universal law of evolution'. However, other theorists (myself included) are not convinced that physical systems like Bénard cells can be treated as analogous to living systems. Some theorists, like John Holland and Stuart Kauffman, while not endorsing Prigogine's energy-centered theory, hold out the hope for finding other laws of complexity in nature. Kauffman believes that "a few deep and beautiful laws may govern the emergence of life and the population of the biosphere." Yet these laws remain to be discovered.

Are we, then, devoid of a satisfactory 'why' theory for complex systems? Is the evolution of complexity an unsolved and perhaps unsolvable mystery? As it happens, there already exists a general theory of complex living systems (inclusive of human-made systems) that was proposed 18 years ago. It is called the 'Synergism Hypothesis,' and it was developed in depth in a book with that title published by McGraw-Hill (1983). However, the book was premature and was addressed primarily to evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and other social scientists, not to systems scientists. It is only now gaining recognition in each of these diverse scientific communities.

The hypothesis, in brief, is that synergy, a vaguely familiar term to many of us, is actually one of the major organizing principles of the natural world. It has been a wellspring of creativity in evolution, and it has played a central role in the evolution of complexity in nature. The Synergism Hypothesis asserts that synergy is more than simply a category of interesting and ubiquitous effects; it has also been a major causal agency in evolution. Synergistic functional effects of various kinds have been a necessary, if not sufficient, requisite for the evolution of cooperation and complexity at all levels of biological organization. It is in fact a unifying theory of complex living systems (though not all systems).

This theory is not as radical or revolutionary as it may sound. It is fully consistent with Darwin's theory, and with the canons of physics, chemistry, the biological sciences and the social sciences. It is also compatible with "inclusive fitness theory," "multilevel selection theory," "symbiogenesis," and other formulations that are concerned with cooperative relationships in nature. In effect, the Synergism Hypothesis involves a different perspective, a different way of viewing the same phenomena. It is, in essence, an "economic" theory of complexity, a functional theory as distinct from gene-centered theories, or postulates of self-organization and 'laws' of complexity, or even theories of random historical contingencies. Moreover, this theory is eminently testable and lends itself to falsifiable predictions.

In a recently completed new book on the Synergism Hypothesis, entitled Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind, this theory is also applied to the evolution of humankind and complex human societies. Among other things, it supports the thesis that the human species invented itself; synergistic behavioral innovations were the 'pacemakers' of our biological evolution. To borrow a phrase, we are "the self-made man."

Needless to say, there are many implications associated with viewing the evolutionary process in this light.

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