Nature's Magic:
Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind

© Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Peter A. Corning, Ph.D.
Institute for the Study of Complex Systems


"Two are better than one, because they have good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken."
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12


Click here to read the prologue in .pdf format


The thesis of this book, 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 has played central role in the evolution of complexity, from the subject-matter of physics and chemistry to human societies. The "Synergism Hypothesis" asserts that synergy is not simply a class 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 a unifying theory of complexity.

This theory is not as radical or revolutionary as it sounds. It is fully consistent with Darwin's theory, and with the canons ofphysics, chemistry, the biological sciences and the social sciences. It is also compatible with "symbiogenesis," "multilevel selection theory" and other recent 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 quintessentially an economic (or "bioeconomic") theory of complexity -- a functional theory, as distinct from gene-centered theories, or postulates of self-organization and emergent "laws" of complexity, or even theories of historical contingencies (a "drunkard's walk"). Moreover, this theory is testable and lends itself to falsifiable predictions.

Nature’s Magic provides a brief survey of the many different kinds of synergy in nature and develops the case for the Synergism Hypothesis in some detail. The theory is then applied specifically to the evolution of humankind and complex human societies.

To read the Praises of Natures Magic click here .pdf


  1. Prologue: The New Evolutionary Paradigm
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  2. What is Synergy? - The Causal Role of Synergy - Synergy in Evolution - The Synergistic Ape - The Perils of Prediction

  3. The "Enchanted Loom"
  4. A Golden Tapestry of Synergies — Technology as Synergy — Synergies ‘R’ Us — The Varieties of Synergy: Synergies of Scale — Threshold Effects — Phase Transitions — Gestalt Effects — Functional Complementarities — Emergent Phenomena — Augmentation or Facilitation — Environmental Conditioning — Risk- and Cost-Sharing — A Combination of Labor — Information-Sharing — Convergent (Historical) Effects — Synergy is Everywhere

  5. The Magic Castle
  6. The Big Whoosh — Enter Synergy — The Synergy in Gravity — Fusion and Synergy — Chemistry as Synergy — The Anthropic Principle — Architectonics in Cosmic Evolution — The Wizardry of Nature — Catch 22 and the Synergy of RNA - The Evidence From Stromatolytes — Symbiosis as a form of Synergy — Eukaryotes are Us — “Symbiogenesis” — The Economics of Symbiosis — Multicellular Synergy — Cambrian Synergy — Social Synergy — Synergy in Ecosystems — An Oasis of Synergy — Synergy in the Biosphere — Good Gaia! — The Whole Shebang

  7. Black Magic
  8. Negative Synergy is Not an Oxymoron — “Dysergy” in Cyberspace — Threshold Effects — Negative Social Synergy — The Titanic Effect — Synergy Minus One — Synergy Goes to War — Y2K: A Close Call — The Paradox of Dependency — Devolution as a Loss of Synergy — A Biblical Example — The Rise and Fall of Rome — Pox Romana — The Lessons of History — High and Low Synergy — Negative Synergy in Nature

  9. The Synergism Hypothesis
  10. Why Not Synergy? — The Vicissitudes of Synergy — The Ideological Debate About Evolution — A Favorable Tide? — Where is Natural Selection? — The Causes of Evolution - The Synergism Hypothesis — Synergy and the Evolution of Complexity — The Selfish Genome — Seeing With New Eyes — Growing Support for This Theory — The Economics of Synergy — Cooperation Versus Competition — Testing for Synergy — Neo-Darwinism Compared — Egoistic Cooperation — Game Theory Revisited — Other Problems — Synergistic Selection — A Stalking Horse — Turning the Necker Cube - Weighing the Synergism Hypothesis — Consider the Alternatives — Holistic Darwinism: The New Evolutionary Paradigm

  11. The "Sorcerer's Apprentice"
  12. Lamarck’s Vision — Organic Selection — The “Pacemaker” of Evolution — Legendary Learners — The “Sentient Symphony” — Tool Using Synergy — Lamarck’s Ghost — Evolution on Purpose — Chance, Necessity and Teleonomy — “Downward Causation” — Selfish Memes? - “Feedback” [Sic] — “Neo-Lamarckian Selection” — A Two-Way Street — Neo-Lamarckian Selection and Human Evolution

  13. Conjuring Human Evolution: The Synergistic Ape
  14. A Wealth of Scenarios — The Killer Ape — Food Sharing — The Nuclear Family — The Synergism Hypothesis and Human Evolution — What was the Context? — Primate Pre-adaptations — Australopithecine Synergy — A Division of Labor — Tools and Synergy — Hard Evidence for Soft Technologies — The Social Triad — Homo Intermedius — A Technological Revolution — A Neo-Lamarckian Process — A Hotbed of Synergy — Culture, Language and Synergy — Homo Symbolicus — Language as a Prime Mover? — Language as an Invention — Alternative Paths to Modern Humans — The Synergistic Package — Prehistoric Warfare? — An Illustration: The Rise of the Zulu Nation — Occam’s Razor Revisited — The Synergistic Species

  15. Conjuring Our Past: Does Cultural Evolution Have an "Arrow"?
  16. An Ancient Idea — The Age of Spencer — A Passel of Prime Movers — The Social Conflict School — Technological Determinism — What is Technology? — Sunflower Oil — The Automobile Revolution — Technology and The Synergism Hypothesis — Down With Prime Movers! — A Trajectory Without an Arrow — Synergy in Cultural Evolution — Synergy in Settlements — The Agricultural “Revolution” — Synergy in Chiefdomships and States — The Paradox of Dependency — Upward and Onward?

  17. The Science of History
  18. Pythagoras and “The Music of the Spheres” — The Neo-Pythagoreans — The Quest for Laws of History — The Law of Evolution? — Order for Free? — The Law of Higglety Pigglety — Is the Science of History an Oxymoron? — Molecular Computers — Simple Models and the Hierarchy of Nature — The Causal Role of Synergy in Evolution — Architectonics and the Evolution of Complexity — An Unfinished Symphony

  19. Conjuring the Future: What Can We Predict?
  20. The Logic of Synergy — The Logic of Failure — The Perils of Prediction — So What Can We Predict? — Cassandra Meets Pollyanna — Synergy and the Fate of Humankind — Tying up the Loose Threads — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Revisited

For more information, please contact Peter Corning (

Copyright © 2007 ISCS. All rights reserved.