Synergy and Feedback Loops
The Universe in which we live appears, according to human perception, to be one of structures and interactions of structures. Structures, as we will see in more detail elsewhere, began to form in the first moments after the break-up of the force unity that fleetingly existed 13.7 billion years ago. These structures were initially constructed by units of energy-matter that were utterly fundamental. These structures had characteristics that were made possible not only by the kinds of energy-matter that composed them but the way in which that energy-matter had come together to do so, which caused their arrangement and their internal organization to emerge. These structures were examples of true self-organization, and from them sequences of emergent phenomena proceeded, imposing layers of organization on seemingly chaotic events. So we may say that the building of structures is the process of taking components and combining them in ways that cause something to emerge that could not exist if the components had not been combined in that way. Moreover, this new thing is something that could not have been anticipated based on its individual parts. Further, in many instances, the emergence and interaction of structures facilitates the construction of ever-more structures of a similar type, creating a meta-structure or a chain of structures which are also self-perpetuating. The interaction of structures in regular ways often becomes a process. When processes intersect, they can form a meta-process, the effects of which are greater in combination than any process in isolation. All of these instances are examples of a phenomenon known as synergy. Of all the hidden realities that surround humans, none is more powerful or significant.
R. Buckminster Fuller began his study Synergetics (1975) with the following definitions of the term:
Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of the parts taken separately…Synergy means behavior of integral, aggregate, whole systems unpredicted by behaviors of any of their components or subassemblies of their components taken separately from the whole.1
In other words: a synergy can create genuine novelty, or act in such a way as to create a reality that can only exist in particular conditions. A synergy of interacting components can therefore have a greater impact than any of the individual components acting singly. Sometimes synergy is thought to be the embodiment of the old expression, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, but it is actually a more complex phenomenon than implied by that aphorism. Synergy also exists when a given phenomenon interacts with other phenomena to create the very conditions that either make possible the increased expression or manifestation of the phenomenon (a positive synergy) or inexorably lead to its eradication (a negative synergy). In this form of synergy, the phenomenon that comes into existence is therefore both novel and self-perpetuating (or self-destructing).
A feedback loop is a more narrow phenomenon, one that involves a single mechanism that processes specific information of some sort and uses that information for the purposes of self-correction. (See below) A synergy, involving as it does interacting phenomena, incorporates feedback loops of various kinds within itself.
Synergies do not occur instantaneously in a given circumstance. There seems to be a critical mass, so to speak, of interacting factors that produce them, what might be called a tipping point. (The author Malcolm Gladwell has used this term as the title and theme of a recent book, but I am using the term more broadly. Gladwell is primarily concerned with how such phenomena as epidemics, cultural preferences, and ideas become widespread, and his conclusions will be examined in the chapter Memes and the Spread of Ideas in a subsequent volume.) The tipping point may be thought of as that variable or conjunction of variables in a situation that leads a synergy to be self-sustaining or self-organizing. It may also be thought of as the point in the construction of a structure when that structure has acquired the essential features of the category into which the structure falls. A tipping point is brought about in part by the impact of cumulative effect. When enough incremental changes have occurred in a situation, when enough efficiencies of scale have been created, when enough self-organizing processes have come together, when enough of the proper materials are in place, when enough of the necessary skills have been learned, or enough pertinent ideas generated, then a tipping point may be reached.
Synergies that generate self-perpetuating phenomena gather strength the longer and more widely they are allowed to function. By enduring over long stretches of time, they draw into themselves increasingly powerful aggregations of energy-matter. By spreading out over greater areas of the Earth’s surface, they are more likely to intertwine with complementary synergies and form themselves into a synergy-of-synergies. (See below.) If they are synergies that are expressing themselves in the human community, they draw more and more human minds into their processes the longer they endure and the more widely they spread. And yes, the longer they last and the more widely they are spread, the greater the chance that they will come into conflict with non-complementary synergies. Even the most powerful synergistic effect can be stopped in its tracks by such opposing synergies. Synergies can be destroyed by completely random events as well, events which themselves may be synergistic in nature. In one perspective the world can be seen as the clash of competing synergistic processes.
So, in sum, synergy can be defined in three ways:
1. When individual components are brought together in a specific manner to produce a structure that could exist in no other way, synergy is present.
2. When two or more things are combined and have a greater impact or effect than any of them have in isolation, or if their effects are multiplied by being combined, synergy is present.
3. When a process begins that creates more of the circumstances that cause the process to occur (or which leads to its inexorable extinction) in a self-perpetuating manner, synergy is present.
Reality Itself as a Synergistic Phenomenon
Reality itself represents, in one perspective, the most overarching meta-synergy possible. Fuller calls this phenomenon synergy-of-synergies, where synergies come together as components of a larger aggregation of synergies. In his words,
Universe apparently is omnisynergetic. No single part of experience will ever be able to explain the behavior of the whole.2
We have already discussed self-organization and emergence. Now we will see that the synergies that typify these processes unfold and echo all around us. It is only through the interaction and interconnection of multitudinous variables that reality itself is expressed and perceived.
Synergy as a Feature of the Physical Universe
The construction of protons and neutrons from quarks, the structure of the elements made possible by the construction of atoms, the construction of molecules, and the compounds made from them, are all examples of synergy. It is not until elements are acting in concert with each other that chemical reality can emerge. Moreover, the Universe is a self-sustaining phenomenon. Its processes facilitate their own continuation and development, and will only be ended when complete entropy is arrived at, an event which may not be completely finished until 1045 years from now.
The process by which stars are formed is also synergistic. As clouds of dust and gas collapse, the clouds rotate, conserving angular momentum. As they rotate, their gravitational force pulls in more material. As the mass of material grows larger, it is able to pull in even more material until ultimately the intense pressure at the center of the mass ignites. (See the chapter First Stars) Galaxies form when dark matter and gravity combine to help create masses of stars and/or draw stars into huge clusters, and as clusters combine with other clusters of stars, either created at the same time or not, to create increasingly extensive galaxies. (See the chapter The First Galaxies)
Synergy in Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology
The phenomenon of synergy in chemistry has been understood for centuries, and indeed the term itself originates in the chemical sciences. Examples abound of compounds the individual constituents of which are radically different in combination than their behavior in isolation. We see the converse of chemical synergy when one of the constituents is removed from the process by fractionation, and the multiplied effect disappears. The actual mechanism of chemical synergy is not well understood, but its effects are undeniable.3 And while drugs used in the treatment of disease can gain greater efficacy in combination than in isolated application, drug interactions in animals can have disastrous consequences because of the powerful unanticipated chemical synergies that can be created.
A complex animal’s body is a system of systems, as we will emphasize later. Only by acting in concert, as an integrated whole, can they maintain the animal’s health in normal equilibrium. The movement of an animal through three-dimensional space, for example, is the result of the interplay between the nervous and muscular systems, supported by the actions of the circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine systems. By keeping an animal alive and functioning in a normal way, these synergistically-acting systems enhance the prospects that the animal will reproduce and produce more systems acting in an integrated fashion.
An ecosystem may be thought of in synergistic terms as well. The interaction of the various elements within an ecosystem creates a reasonably (but not perfectly) stable environment. The synergies operating in an ecosystem, the product of such variables as symbiosis and predation, can certainly be seriously disrupted, but given enough time to recuperate, a new equilibrium, maintained by a new set of synergies will reassert itself.
Synergy as the Essential Feature of Consciousness
It is the interaction of islands of neurons, as we will see in more detail later, that creates the phenomenon that we call consciousness. The ever-changing nature of the individual’s consciousness, as images coalesce and dissolve, trains of thought are initiated and set aside, emotions wash through like tides washing over a shoreline, and memories emerge and fade, are made possible by a constantly shifting mosaic of neuronal activity. This activity in turn is created by an extremely complex pattern of neurotransmitters’ activities, interacting in ways not fully understood and with hard-to-trace chains of reciprocity and reaction. It is the sum of such activities within the brain that allows consciousness to be experienced. Consciousness therefore arises from the synergistic actions of regions of the brain. Moreover, the possession of consciousness allows a human to enhance his or her survival chances, thereby increasing the probability of more consciousness coming into being.
Synergy in Evolution
Evolution itself can be thought of as a synergy, the continuous interaction between the genetic characteristics of a population and the environment in which the population lives. Favorable genes are reproduced which cause the traits they produce to become more widespread, reinforcing their reproductive value. Eventually, a population emerges with a distinct genome, a population that can only successfully breed with others within the population. Of such is speciation—the production of new species—born, the appearance in nature of novelty. Of course, very rapid changes in an environment can result in the emergence of a negative synergy. What were once advantages can become disastrous disadvantages very quickly. Colors and shapes which once conferred protection can lose their usefulness as camouflage, and can in fact now make an animal conspicuous. Large bodies, useful for protection, can lose too much heat in climates that have grown cooler, leading to disaster. Synergy is a natural process in which no value judgments are or can be rendered. Consequently, there are no survival guarantees for any living thing on this planet.
Peter Corning has coined the term Holistic Darwinism to describe the interaction of various phenomena that drive the evolutionary process. Corning favors what he calls a synthetic explanation of evolution. He lists the various factors that have been proposed as the “prime movers” of evolution: toolmaking (to which I give great emphasis), primate “preadaptations” (presumably meaning primate survival strategies conserved in our genus), bipedalism, the impact of major climatic changes during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, the emergence of hunting and gathering, the significance of the nuclear family, and a number of survival tactics made possible by the evolution of big and complex brains in humans. Corning argues “that all of these factors were important, but that none was sufficient”.4 Only in combination could they drive the evolution of the genus Homo forward.
So human physical traits are themselves the results of synergy. As I said above, I give primacy to toolmaking in human evolution, while certainly taking other factors into account, so I will take toolmaking as my example. Certain upright primates, either advanced australopithecines or very primitive humans, were attracted to and intrigued by the possibilities inherent in the ordinary objects they found in the environment. They learned that using such objects to help do a job was a very powerful technique. The use of these objects, probably simply branches or individual stones, magnified the physical powers of the body. They provided leverage or a concentration of force. Stones in particular, being more molecularly dense than human bodies, were wonderful force multipliers. The benefits that the use of these external objects gave to their users were considerable. These objects didn’t even have to be fashioned in any way. They could many times be used as they were. A stone could be used to hurl at an animal, either to kill it for meat or drive it away if it was bent on predation. A stone could be used to crush vegetation or nuts, allowing their consumption. So where does the synergy enter in? The curiosity that caused these primates to experiment with the objects they found was rewarded. Just using a simple, ordinary stone in its original state conferred survival advantages. Those who learned how to use objects efficiently were more likely to survive the deadly threats that surrounded them. This meant that the genetic and physiological traits within these primates that caused them to pick up branches or stones—in other words, to use tools—were more likely to be reproduced. Over time, and many generations, these traits became more and more dominant. So the synergy produced looked like this:
Tool use→Reproductive advantage for those using them→Genuine tool making→greater reproductive advantage for those who could modify and improve natural objects→more sophisticated and varied tool-making→dominance of those traits which made tool-making possible→widespread sophisticated tool-making which greatly enhanced survival rates→true technology based cultures.
Once this process was underway, it proved to be such a powerful and positive synergy that it favored the evolutionary success and development of those traits that had made it possible: upright posture which freed the hands, the flexibility and manipulative abilities of the hands themselves, and the portions of the cerebral cortex with the greatest concentration of those neurons most involved in imagination and conceptualization. Tool-making became a self-reinforcing phenomenon, caused by the interaction of upright primate physical traits and useful objects found in the natural world.
Synergies in the Human World
Synergies abound in the human-made world. Corning has provided many cases of them. For example, human-built physical structures are synergistic, the result of the bringing together of materials that can only form a building when they are assembled in a specific manner. Recipes are synergistic in that the bringing together of certain food ingredients produces a synthesis that could exist in no other way. Any complex mechanism, such as an automobile, represents a synergy, because only by being assembled and its parts made to interact in a well-defined way can a vehicle emerge at all. Large human organizations can be thought of as synergies. Those people who comprise the organization and the set procedures they follow are acting in concert to produce an outcome that could be produced in no other way.5 Any cooperative venture, if properly organized, will take individual human efforts and combine them in such a way that self-perpetuating synergies are more likely to emerge. The owners of businesses count on this. They are hoping that the profits generated from rationally organized cooperative ventures will allow the venture to expand and generate more profits which will enable further expansion, and so forth. In a sense, business competition is partially a battle of conflicting synergy management. (Random chance, however, is still at work in such an environment, and can upend even the most carefully thought-out business plan.)
What is somewhat misleadingly labeled the Industrial Revolution was a strongly synergistic phenomenon, as invention, capital, and resources all combined to enlarge the effects of each other, and in so doing created forms of labor, kinds of products, places of manufacture, and kinds of living arrangements that had not been seen before. And it needs to be pointed out that an indispensable component of such a synergy is the human ability to conceive of new ways of doing things, or to imagine new physical arrangements.
In human relationships, synergies abound. As humans gain the ability to form friendships and romantic relationships, their confidence in their ability to do so often increases dramatically, enabling them to form even more person-to-person relationships. Conversely, disastrous experiences in such matters can lead to a diminishing of confidence that makes a person less and less able to interact effectively, ultimately leading to utter isolation.
In financial matters, often times the possession of a certain amount of wealth leads to synergies, as the weight of money invested creates more wealth, allowing for greater investment leading to more wealth, and so on. Conversely, once investment losses begin to pile up, the process can turn into a financial death spiral, leading inexorably to ruin. Not all economic situations generate synergistic effects, but enough of them do that the phenomenon has a serious impact on economic life. The tipping point in these situations is highly variable from instance to instance, and only broad principles can be seen in action. There is no magic formula for determining economic success or disaster.
The creation of novelty and the self-perpetuating aspects of synergy are clearly embodied in computer technology. Not only is a computer a mechanism that can only function when certain elements within it are made to interact in a specific manner, it is a device that can facilitate its own reproduction. In fact, it is the product of multiple synergies, the set of all synergies that created its individual components, all of which are brought together in processes that reinforce and complement each other, creating a synergy-of-synergies. We have witnessed such an effect in the development of computer software and hardware, the internal synergies of each area interacting with the internal synergies of the other to drive the development of computer technology at an astonishing rate. Computers are used to design other computers, which make possible the designing of more powerful computers, and so on. Better machines, the result of hardware synergy, demand better code, the result of software synergy. The two synergies drive each other relentlessly.
Synergies often produce such unanticipated effects that their outcomes can spiral out of control. To give a simple example, the building of systems of high-quality highways in the advanced nations can induce more people to drive more often, which can make the demands for roadways all the greater, which in turn creates more automobile use. Many of the largest cities on our planet have found out the hard way how powerful such a synergy can be. More seriously, the synergies that create large and complex societies themselves interact and overlap in such a complex manner that sorting them out is almost impossible. Paradoxically, the very act of isolating the individual variables that comprise the synergies can obscure the way in which they act in combination. They can only be understood synergistically.
Feedback loops operate in many areas of reality as sub-processes, so to speak, of synergies. The essence of a simple feedback loop is a phenomenon known as bistability. Bistable systems can assume only two stable states, and can be in only one of these states at a time. Moreover, a bistable system will remain in this state unless acted upon in some way. The term bistable is commonly used in electronics, but the idea of bistable systems is also studied extensively in the biological sciences. For example, researchers in China have found that cells in the human body routinely signal each other in a feedback-driven, bistable switch-like manner. They also point out, however, that the switching is not necessarily instantaneous. There is a phenomenon in bistable systems known as hysteresis. Hysteresis is the lag between the activation of a switching response and the actual transition of a circuit or cell from one state to another. These researchers also emphasize that cells are deeply influenced by random processes, and hence the effect of the switching mechanism cannot always be foreseen. But the significance of cellular feedback loops is undeniable:
Bistability is extremely important in cell signaling. Bistable switches are able to convert a transient stimulus into a self-sustaining, irreversible response, providing a mechanism for epigenetic memory…A positive-feedback based memory module is widely exploited in cell fate decisions… However, cellular processes are essentially stochastic and small fluctuations in stimulus could be amplified by positive feedback…6
Feedback loops are very common in the functioning of the nervous and endocrine systems. Feedback loops are used by these systems to maintain an anatomically advanced animal’s homeostasis, or internal physical equilibrium. In the case of hormones, negative feedback loops are by far the most common variety. Negative feedback loops act to inhibit the secretion of hormones once the necessary level of a particular hormone in the bloodstream has been reached, such as the mechanisms that regulate thyroid hormones or insulin.7 When these inhibitory mechanisms fail, a human’s health is in significant danger.
Feedback loops operating within the nerves of the heart are involved in the regulation of the heartbeat.8 Neuronal activity in the brain may be thought of as the sum of the activity of feedback loops which in sufficient concentration causes the emergence of the overall synergistically-based consciousness that humans experience.9 In fact, neurons in the brain act as bistable switches, although the neuron itself is far more complex in structure and function than the term switch would suggest. (See the chapter Some (Brief) Comments On the Brain’s Anatomy and Physiology in Volume Two.) In short, both the central and peripheral nervous systems function as a huge mass of feedback loops, both positive and negative, which collectively keep an animal in equilibrium and allow it to function. This collective feedback loop activity in an animal allows its physiological synergies to emerge.
Feedback loops operate in gene regulatory networks as well. Gene regulatory networks control the expression of genes in all developmental processes, specifying patterns of gene activity through both time and space. They are themselves thousands of DNA sequences.10
Feedback loops apparently play a major role in all forms of learning, as we will see in greater detail later. The acquisition of language by children appears to be especially dependent on them, as children modify their use of language through a series of attempts at communication that are either successful or unsuccessful in varying degrees. (I cannot think of the process as one marked by pure bistability, given the complexity of language.) Humans proceed through life, constantly testing physical reality (touch this/don’t touch that, say this/don’t say that, go here/don’t go there, eat this/don’t eat that), constantly acquiring feedback and evaluating it, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. It is through this series of feedback-dependent actions that humans form much (although not all) of their picture of the world. Their very bodies, the bodies of the other animals in the world, and a host of other physical processes, operate by means of innumerable feedback loops, which form the substrate of the synergistic processes by which reality itself operates.
It is the unseen ubiquity of synergy that undermines our attempts to comprehend it. It can only be seen in its effects, and only if we consciously go looking for them. Only when it has manifested itself in a major way is a synergy truly seen for the powerful phenomenon that it is. And we can measure feedback loops, but only when we consider them in the fullness and context of their operation do they acquire significance. It is by the processes of synergy and feedback loops that we and the reality of which we are a part interact and move through space-time.
And some, perhaps, might say that a work about the emergence and nature of human history in which all their various elements are examined so that an unanticipated picture of the whole might emerge is also a synergy.