Synergy and the Bioeconomics of Complexity

  • Peter A. CorningEmail author
Conference paper
Part of the Springer Proceedings in Complexity book series (SPCOM)


Living systems are distinctive in that they are subject to basic economic criteria, and to economic constraints. They are obedient to the calculus of economic costs and benefits in any given environmental context. This applies to all biological traits, including complexity (which can be defined and measured in both structural and functional terms). A major theoretical challenge, therefore, is to account for the “progressive” evolution of complex living systems over time, from the origins of life itself to “superorganisms” like leaf cutter ants and humankind. Why has complexity evolved? A causal theory, called the Synergism Hypothesis, was first proposed by this author in the 1980s and was independently proposed by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry in the 1990s. This theory is only now emerging from the shadows as a major paradigm shift is occurring in evolutionary biology away from a reductionist, individualistic, gene-centered model to a multi-level, systems perspective. The Synergism Hypothesis is, in effect, an economic (or bioeconomic) theory of complexity. It is focused on the costs and benefits of complexity, and the unique creative power of functional synergy in the natural world. The theory proposes that the overall trajectory of the evolutionary process over the past 3.8 billion years or so has been shaped by synergies of various kinds. The synergies produced by cooperation among various elements, genes, parts, or individuals may create interdependent “units” of adaptation and evolutionary change that are favored in a dynamic that Maynard Smith termed Synergistic Selection (in effect, a sub-category of natural selection). Some methodological issues will also be discussed, and some examples will be provided.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Institute for the Study of Complex Systems is headquartered in SeattleWashingtonUSA

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