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A review of "Holistic Darwinisn: Synergy, Cybernetics and the Bioeconomics of Evolution":

Written by Peter A. Corning, published by University of Chicago Press ISBN 0226116166 (2005)

What is the book about?

Holistic Darwinism (HD) is Corning’s term for the new paradigm that is emerging as an alternative to Neo-Darwinism. HD views evolution as a dynamic, multilevel process, in which there is both “upward causation” (from the genes to the phenotype and higher levels of organization) and “downward causation” (phenotypic influences on differential survival and reproduction) and even “horizontal causation” (between organisms). From an HD perspective, the emergence of higher-level “individuals” (in Michael Ghiselin’s characterization) far from being epiphenomena, act as wholes that exert causal influences as distinct evolutionary units.

HD also serves as an umbrella term for a broad theory of cooperation and complexity in nature that Corning first outlined in The Synergism Hypothesis (Corning, 1983). The theory, in essence, an economic—or bioeconomic—theory of complexity, asserts that synergy has been a major causal agency in evolution, offering a unifying explanation for complexity at all levels of living systems. Corning argues that the functional payoffs produced by various kinds of synergy have constituted the drivers of this important evolutionary trend, one that applies to human evolution and to the evolution of human cultures and their political systems no less than to lower level organisms.

The fundamental linkage between biology and economics—effectively the one that underpins the meaning of the term ‘bioeconomics’—derives from the fact that humans share with all other living species the fundamental problems of survival and reproduction. Neo-Darwinian theory—as purified by Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene perspective—attributes evolutionary change to competition among replicators—these are taken to be the ultimate units of information transfer in evolution. In the classical Neo-Darwinian model, cooperation plays a decidedly subsidiary role. Yet, according to Corning, if we look at evolution as an ecological and economic process—a survival enterprise in which living systems and their replicators are embedded—then differential reproductive success is driven by a complex interplay of both competitive and cooperative interactions between functionally interdependent units of ecological interaction.

Corning also introduces and discusses two new terms: 1) thermoeconomics refers to the use of economic criteria to understand the role of energy in evolution; 2) control information to describe a new, cybernetic (functional) kind of information that is measured in terms of the energy that can be controlled in a given context. Three of the major aspects of the new paradigm described by Corning, then, are synergy, cybernetics, and bioeconomics.

Summary of the book’s main arguments

The book is made up of seventeen chapters subdivided into four parts. Part I discusses synergy and evolution in eight chapters. It presents the main features of The Synergy Concept (Chapter 1), Holistic Darwinism (Chapter 2), bringing them together in the Synergy Hypothesis (Chapter 3) which it puts forward as an alternative to theories of self-organization as an explanation of the evolution of complex systems (Chapter 4). It discusses the concept of emergence in Chapter 5 and offers a synergistic perspective on political processes such as devolution (Chapters 6 and 7). The final chapter of this part (Chapter 8) discusses the evolution of superorganisms (Hobbes’s Levathian).

Like Herbert Spencer before him, Corning conceptualizes different types of social groupings as superorganisms. He views the shared goals of these groupings as coordination and integration devices. Yet, arguably, a social grouping can be located on a continuum that has superorganisms at one end and ecologies at the other. Where one then locates such a grouping will be a function of whether it does have shared goals or not, and of the tightness of the coupling between its constituent elements—in what way, for example, would a virtual organization that is spread out all over the globe look like a superorganism as conceived of in biology? As far back as 1887, Fernand Tönnies had established a distinction between organization and community (Tönnies, 1974). An organization aligns its constituent elements behind shared goals. A community, by contrast, negotiates the relationship between its constituent elements on the basis of shared interests. The first may well look like a superorganism, but the second will look more like an ecology. Both offer scope for synergistic thinking—mutualism, commensalisms, etc., but they have a different ‘look and feel’.

Part II presents the main concepts of bioeconomics—a key element of the paradigm shift identified with Holistic Darwinism - in three chapters. It compares evolutionary economics and bioeconomics in Chapters 9 and 10, and introduces the concept of basic needs as an approach to the challenge of biological survival and reproduction in human societies in Chapter 11. Corning is at pains to distinguish between problems of scarcity, efficiency, profitability, habits, etc.—i.e., the concerns of orthodox economics—and what he sees as the biologically more basic problems of survival and reproduction. Claiming Thomas Malthus as a progenitor of the movement, Corning tells us that bioeconomics concerns itself primarily with the latter.

Yet surely Malthus’s message was that the struggle for existence and reproduction is at least in part responsible for generating the scarcities that are of concern to more conventional economists! After all, survival and reproduction inevitably generate claims upon resources. Scarcity is then the relationship between the volume of such claims and the resources available to meet them. Women who have ten surviving children, for example, generate more claims upon resources than women who have two. To exist, therefore, is already to have generated a scarcity by consuming resources that could have been put to alternative uses. Survival and reproduction, then, are not alternative problems that economics should be dealing with. They are alternative formulations of the perennial problem that besets economics: the allocation of resources to competing uses under conditions of scarcity. The challenge of biological survival and reproduction would simply not look the same in a world of zero scarcity.

Part III addresses the theoretical foundations of evolutionary theory in general and of Holistic Darwinism in particular at a deeper level. Over three chapters, it challenges the way that the two physical concepts of thermodynamics and information have been interpreted and applied in evolutionary theory. Following a discussion of Thermodynamics, information and their relationship to living systems in Chapter 12, Corning introduces two new concept, thermoeconomics and control information, respectively in Chapters 13 and 14.

I found Part III the most important and thought provoking part of the book. Unfortunately, Corning’s approach to information is not entirely convincing. What is the difference between control information—described by Corning as “a new, cybernetic (functional) kind of information that is measured in terms of the energy that can be controlled in a given context”—and information tout court? If we take Bateson’s definition of information as “the difference that makes a difference” there turns out to be none! Information, as Kenneth Arrow well understood, is that subset of the data that gets registered by a system and that modifies its disposition to act.

Finally, Part IV explores the implications that Holistic Darwinism hold for our thinking on evolutionary ethics. Chapter 15 presents the idea of an evolutionary ethics, Chapter 16 discusses the socio-biology of democracy and the final chapter (17), entitled “Fair Shares”, offers a biologically rooted approach to social justice. Corning argues that the sociality and readiness of humans to cooperate far exceeds that of any other primate and that they can make cultural choices that will encourage or discourage moral conduct—that is, conduct that is responsive to the needs and attitudes of others. Building on this argument, Corning then puts forward a normative framework that includes three complementary principles:

  1. That goods and services should be distributed to each according his/her “basic needs”;

  2. That “surpluses” beyond the provision for these basic needs should be distributed according to “merit”;

  3. That in return, each person should be obliged (under the well-established evolutionary principle of reciprocity) to contribute to the collective survival enterprise in accordance with his/her ability.

Though none of these principles is new, in combination they define a biologically grounded ‘third way’.

But in a globalizing world, what is the unit of analysis? Who can claim membership of what collective and who cannot? And whose fairness principles apply in a multicultural yet globalizing world? What and whose principles apply, for example, if workers are underpaid by a multinational firm in country X relative to country Y, but overpaid relative to country Y’s other workers? Corning is certainly aware of the issue, noting that the line would eventually have to be drawn between different collectives. But how do you do this when all around you the very barriers that would allow the line to be drawn are crashing down under the force of globalization? The concept of markets can accommodate this development to some extent, since market efficiency depends on freedom of entry and of exit. But can the concept of fair shares? One of the foundational questions of the Christian ethic is ‘who is my neighbor’? In answering this question, unfortunately, a biologically rooted ethic may not get us much beyond the particularistic concerns of the troupe or the tribe.

To summarize, in this last part of the book, I certainly see the bio- but where did the economics go? In effect, we have moved without realizing it into territory that used to be the province of political economy rather than economics. And here, I am not sure that, except for the meritocratic distribution of ‘surpluses’—which also has its problems—Corning’s biologically grounded scheme can move us much beyond Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party—written in 1848. I am clear that Holistic Darwinism does carry important ethical implications for us. Those put forward by Corning, however, are not the most obvious ones.

Critique of the book

Corning’s book appears to have two aims. The first is to put forward Holistic Dawinism as alternative paradigm to that of Neo-Dawinism. The second is to take Holistic Darwinism as a basis for moving economics in a new direction—toward a conceptual integration of biology and economics in a new discipline, bioeconomics. How well does it succeed?

Since many of the arguments in favor of Holistic Darwinism had already been outlined in Corning’s 2003 book, Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind (Cambridge University Press), and, since I had read that book, I was already sympathetic to the first of his two aims. I nevertheless came away from reading this book with the impression that, in his concern to establish the Synergy Hypothesis, Corning ends up underplaying the role of competition under conditions of scarcity. The reason is that he seems to view scarcity purely in terms of the material resources available to an organism, and argues that the phenomenon is often local and by no means ubiquitous in nature. He notes, for example that available energy is not, overall, a scarce resource and there is certainly plenty of evidence to support such a perspective.

Yet Corning overlooks two points. Firstly one needs to distinguish between the availability of a resource in the abstract and the availability of the resource for a given organism. Ease of access to resources is what is relevant to an economic understanding of scarcity. There are ample energetic resources available in the tar sands of Alberta, for example, but the cost of gaining access to them is what makes them scarce. Corning is actually aware of these costs, but waves away the problem as one of mere efficiency (page 242), as if a concern for efficiency had nothing to do with scarcity! Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for Corning’s argument, the phenomenon of scarcity is implicitly entailed by the very concept of synergy. In many cases, if organism A establishes a synergistic relationship with organism B, then the latter may no longer be available for a synergistic relationship with organism C. In short, while there may or may not be scarcity at the level of material resources, there will often be scarcity at the level of relationships. Many of these are what Hirsh, in his Social Limits to Growth (1977), called positional goods. Hirsh defines these as either scarce in some absolute or socially imposed sense, or subject to congestion or crowding through more intensive use. I think that Holistic Darwinism, instead of treating competition as an alternative account—or as an ‘also ran’—would benefit from integrating the phenomenon more convincingly into its conceptual scheme.

What about the second of Corning’s two aims? The attempt to integrate biology and economics has a respectable ancestry. Ever since the eighteenth century, much has been made of the relationship between “the economy of nature”—a term that Darwin borrowed from Linnaeus—and human economies. Yet, should we be applying economic thinking to Nature—call this ‘the economy of nature’ approach—or rather, as Alfred Marshall (1920) advocated but never really practiced, biological thinking to economics? In effect, both approaches enhance the level of generality of economic concepts, although the second would also bring about an important frame shift within economics, and would begin to naturalize the discipline’s epistemic foundations.

Which of the two possible strategies then, does Corning’s adopt? He claims that “The ‘ground zero premise’ (so to speak) of the life sciences is that survival and reproduction represent the basic problem for all living organisms and that this bedrock challenge applies also to human societies” (p. 5). If the project were the naturalization of economics, Corning’s statement would certainly constitute a good point of departure. But beyond challenging the axioms of orthodox economics—although Corning’s treatment of thermodynamics and information leave me unconvinced, most of this is well done—the book struck me as too lacking in economic content to move us very far in the direction of naturalizing economic theory. What Corning is offering us with Holistic Darwinism is really a proto-theory, a useful set of premises that can be used as a basis for further theorizing. To be fair, I think that this is all the book sets out to do. Corning’s main focus is a paradigm shift within evolutionary theory itself with Neo-Darwinism as its target. To be sure, the synergism hypothesis, by explicitly shifting our focus away from a purely competitive order and towards a mixture of collaboration and competition, is promising and has considerable implications for economic theorizing. But it takes a theory to beat a theory and the economic content of Corning’s theorizing remains implicit rather than explicit. The task of working through the inferences that Holistic Darwinism holds for economics, of demonstrating its explanatory advantages over competing alternatives, remains to be done.

A key point is that synergistic effects establish nonlinear increases in output per linear increases in input that are not accounted for by economies of scale or experience curves. But this process must be organized and managed. Therefore it makes no sense to treat the firm as a dot on a production function. It is exogenous to its theorizing. This has as many implications for the organization sciences as it does for the economic ones. The firm, for example, is a locus of novel and emergent competence; something that neoclassical economics finds itself unable to account for. Current transaction cost explanations for the existence of firms takes them to be the product of market failure—Williamson quips that “in the beginning there were markets.” Corning’s synergistic hypothesis, and particularly his insights into game theory, challenges this atomistic presumption in favor of markets.


Seen as an exploration of the economy of nature and as a challenge to Neo-Darwinism, Holistic Darwinism articulates and alternative that is both broadly convincing and attractive. The collaborative dimension of evolutionary processes has suffered from a poor conceptualization and I see Holistic Darwinism as an important step forward in getting it right. Seen as an attempt to naturalize economics, however, the book only gets us to the starting post. It provides alternative axioms but leaves it to the reader to forge these into a theory. Corning under-exploits his valuable insights. His proposed reframing is certainly a challenge to orthodox economics, but he does not give us enough economics to finish the job. Nevertheless, this is a book that has much to offer. By assumption, orthodox economics has traditionally taken everything that goes on inside the firm as being collaborative—the firm as a legal personality—and everything that goes on between firms as being competitive—efficient markets. It has the proceeded to ignore the former in order to concentrate on the latter. This has begun to change, of course, and today it is increasingly recognized that competition and collaboration go on both inside and outside the firm. The synergistic perspective, however, offers the prospects of a coherent theoretical integration of these insights within a new paradigmatic framework. However, the framework needs as articulate a representation in the economics literature as it is being given in the biological literature. Corning’s book is an important contribution to the task. It now needs building on.

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