October 15th, 2002

Reposted from CALResCo.

Connecting Synergistically

Chris Lucas

Men and Women are different, not in the obvious bits but in a deeper way, in our approach to life. The difference in question relates to our relationships, how we view being separate and being together, our approach to connectivity. Whilst this difference may have a biological (hormonal) basis, and be reinforced culturally, that aspect is of little importance. All such differences are statistical, with much overlap between the sexes. Neither approach is right or wrong in itself, they matter only in their effects on our overall fitness, whether we consider that as an individual, as a group or in terms of local or global societies. What matters is what these different approaches tell us about the way we view our world, and how this in turn affects our future behaviour.

When people meet we can take two basic attitudes. In the first, competition, which is typified by male behaviour (fighting over mates in its biological origin perhaps), we regard the other as threatening, as an interaction that potentially reduces our fitness as an individual. In the second, cooperation, typified by female behaviour (caring for offspring as a biological drive perhaps), the other is regarded as needy, interactions potentially increase our overall fitness as a group. In modern complexity thought these two approaches to fitness interrelate and we explore this relationship here. Despite their origins as survival methodologies from our evolutionary past, these gender biases are still with us today, affecting our current social behaviour and shaping the constitutions that we create.

A Difference between the Sexes

Over the last 2500 years we have been living in a patriarchal world, all our institutions and cultural behaviours have been instigated by men, controlled by men and validated by men. Only recently, with the rise of feminism, has serious attention been directed at women and their actual (rather than assumed) behaviours. In her book ‘In a Different Voice’, Carol Gilligan outlines research showing that the two sexes have rather different approaches to life. Calling these the ‘rights’ and ‘care’ approaches, she explains these as methodologies that respectively regulate conflict, and which seek to establish cooperation. The approaches are so different that questions presupposing ‘rights’ answers are apparently badly answered by ‘carers’ (leading to the prejudice of women being thought ‘illogical’), The ‘care’ approach is instead trying to diffuse any conflict, by seeking an alternative solution to the dualistic yes/no answers being forced by the ‘rights’ approach.

The evolutionary value of these two alternative approaches are seen in the behaviour of our primate relatives, whose lifestyles still reflect the evolutionary conditions under which such behaviours originated. The dominance hierarchy of the alpha male’s ‘mating rights’, and the resultant subordinate actions by lesser males, are echoed within the human social scene, with our constant emphasis upon ‘bosses’ and levels of control over the ‘lesser’ members of our social groups. In contrast, the maternal infant care role within the primate world echoes the power sharing mode seen in human friendship associations, a mode that must be seen to be at the heart of society itself.

External and Internal Perspectives

The ‘rights’ view of life is what Hampshire called a ‘judge’ perspective. Here, in common with much philosophy and science, each situation is viewed from the outside in what is regarded as an objective way. This viewpoint forces simplifications since an observer necessarily cannot know the full history or values of the protagonists. Such abstractions allow for easy apparent solutions, but accept without question the either/or nature of protagonist conflict situations. The ‘care’ approach, on the other hand, relates more to what is called an ‘agent‘ perspective, where we are invited to place ourselves into the situations faced by the protagonists and asked how we would respond, which brings into play the full range of our personal historical and emotional values.

This situated form of evaluation is, from a complexity perspective, far more appropriate in real life situations, since it leaves the solution set open and allows the agent to access the full range of possible alternatives, without canalizing choice to just two isolated and opposing options. The requirement to balance multiple values or dimensions in any real situation encourages compromise, but more importantly it also allows synergistic effects to be taken into account, those new possibilities or solutions that result from the interaction process itself. This allows us to deal with novelty and not just those situations phrased in terms of existing or predetermined academic answers.

The Idea of Synergy

Within the complexity field we spend much time talking about state space and the total possibilities open to the system. Here alternative answers come into their own, and in this sense complexity studies is more a female oriented approach to choice than a male one. Synergy is the study of how interactions within systems affect their joint fitness, and this depends largely upon the forms of interaction employed. In the ancient philosophy of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, and also in its close relative Taoism, we find the observation that as well as the view of ‘me’ and that of ‘you’ we can also have the views of ‘both me and you’ and of ‘neither me nor you’. In other words, when we view combinations or interactions we must take into account all the possible combinations, and not just those obvious or familiar to us.

Relating this to our two forms of interactions, the male ‘rights’ approach seeks to keep ‘me’ and ‘you’ separate and to mediate a sort of mutual non-interference pact between us – a uneasy truce (as seen in the politics of Rawls and Dworkin). The female ‘care’ mode addresses the ‘both me and you’ viewpoint, and seeks to benefit both as a result – a compromise, more concerned with emotions, intuition and trust (e.g. in the work of Noddings and Baier). But what about the ‘neither me nor you’ viewpoint, what do we make of this ? Here we step up a level, we transcend the limitations of individual viewpoints and enter a new plane, a social viewpoint. In complexity terms this is a form of emergence and leads to new system properties coming into being, properties or opportunities that do not exist in terms of individual viewpoints.

One plus One equals Infinity

Emergent properties extend the options available to us, they are forms of innovation that take us beyond those possibilities that we previously knew. Two people by working together can achieve what each alone cannot – this may be in something as simple as erecting a tent for example. Once this novel structure comes into existence then further innovations become possible. More people working together can achieve a cathedral, in other fields we obtain computers or ships. Each combinatorial creation can then join with the others to create additional novelty (a floating, computer navigated, hotel for example). In this way our human societies expand in complexity without limit. Synergistic possibilities are thus infinite, life is an open ended adventure.

As well as these material synergies we can also recognise more mental or spiritual ones, for example the religious and political philosophies that play such a large part in our human lives. Each time we innovate in this way we expand our viewpoint to create new values, extra levels of individual or social needs that can then affect our lives in positive or negative ways, often in forms that escape our immediate notice. Emergence, by definition, requires that we transcend our current world, that we accept a new level of reality that goes beyond what we could previously envisage. Our awareness thus grows and we potentially extend beyond our origins, adopting along the way more appropriate modes of thought.

Society as Synergy in Action

Transcending the viewpoint of the individual and recognising these higher level properties is not an easy thing to do, any more than our organs can recognise that they are parts of a person or a molecule that it is part of a cell. Nethertheless, just as a person has abilities beyond those of cells and organs, so our social organisations have lives of their own, properties that do not depend upon specific individuals (whilst being dependent upon some individuals participating in the various roles). This is a form of autopoiesis, a self-sustaining property that retains identity despite part changes, in just the same way as a body retains identity despite replacing all its cells over time.

This form of synergy is characterised by the phenomenon of downward causation, whereby the properties of the higher level act to constrain or stabilise the part behaviours. In society, our laws, customs and institutions create a framework that prevents chaos or disorder but also enables the specialist behaviours (division of labour) and individual efficiencies (extended choice) that distinguishes today’s higher standard of living and potentially better quality of life from more primitive tribal collectives. This aspect of communal novelty can prove to be both good or bad, and sadly our historical experience has rather emphasised the negative aspects, nethertheless this need not be the case.

Autonomy as Illusion

The two inherent aspects, of restrictions (needed to maintain the social infrastructure) and freedoms (our apparent individuality), are often treated separately, as opposing viewpoints, rather than as complementary features of a complex system. Most of our political thought adopts a dualist position, emphasising on the one hand control (law and order – the static traditionalist society) and on the other hand autonomy (personal liberty – the competitive liberal society emphasis). Once we recognise however that freedoms can exist only within a social framework (desert island living forgoes such social benefits), we bring into play the concept of responsibilities. The self as an autonomous entity has no existence outside the society that sustains it. All our claims to individualism (e.g. as artist, lawyer or web billionaire) depend extensively on other people, we rely on them to maintain the social infrastructure that permits us to enjoy ‘rights’ and thus we must also accept responsibility to them in return for these privileges. The modern view that we can have ‘rights’ in isolation is thus seen as absurd – why should other people support us as parasites ? Rights exist only in so far as we accept our collective responsibilities for the synergistic whole which enables them.

Many of the jobs, recreations and infrastructures that make up modern society are meaningless in individual terms, they only gain their validity as social functions, in terms of collective responsibility and benefits. Examples include football games, politics, computers, bureaucrats, banking, churches and television. All of these are producible or usable only within a collective structure, as part of a system of multiple interconnections that gives the freedoms that allow each individual to specialise in tasks that bypass those survival strategies that would be essential if societies didn’t exist. Perhaps 90% or more of our lifestyle today relates to such non-primal needs. That we are able to concentrate so much on the higher social and abstract aspects of life reflects the benefits obtained by social synergy, in contrast to the selfishness often shown today by the individual members.

The Selfish Approach

Problem resolution within a view of autonomous individuality often resorts to power plays, the use of threats. If this does not work then little is left other than acts of aggression. This form of violence is usually resisted. Even if it is not it must lead to damage to the victim, and if resisted (our natural biological impulse) leads to damage to the aggressor also (either material, financial or physical). The escalation of such conflicts is almost inevitable, as the residue of resentment, grudges and injustice will linger over many generations. Breakdown of the social infrastructure (local or national) is a common result of these scenarios, in other words both parties lose in the long term.

The position established by such power plays has led historically to the dominance based social hierarchies with which we are familiar. These are based upon a static form of society, whether dependent upon left or right wing dictatorships, whether secular or religious in form. Given humanity’s propensity for curiosity and novelty, these sorts of systems can only be kept in place by repression of any dissidents, thus most of the government effort is directed to stabilising their control and not on bettering the conditions for their citizens. It is in this form of society that revolutions come into their own, since there is no other avenue for resolving major disputes or disagreements within the status quo. It is an irresponsible form of social organisation that leads to massive fitness losses in overall terms.

Higher Level Webs

Responsibility means accountability, obligation, duty and trust. It presupposes a care ethic, a way of regarding society as a beneficial establishment both for ourselves and others. We thus have a mutual interest in maintaining the synergy that it creates. These emergent properties are a result of our interactions as members of society and if we allow these to change then society can develop accordingly. The fear often supporting static or traditional societies is that this change will dissolve what is valued about the current society and replace it by unwanted novelty that will impinge negatively upon our quality of life. Yet, in any grouping, allowing all to contribute enhances greatly the intelligence and knowledge available. Having one ‘boss’ directing say twelve ‘workers’ means that only a twelfth of his mind can be devoted to controlling each of them, whereas giving the workers self-autonomy enlists thirteen mind-powers on a now mutually-agreed task – a step jump in efficiency exceeding by far so called ‘productivity’ improvements !

The only reason not to support this mode is if the boss wishes to exploit the workers, achieving a result not in their interests, and we must be honest in saying that this is almost invariably the case within our societies, any dissension quickly resulting in suppression by company or state – a fitness minimising strategy for the majority. But the size of the ‘pots’ that such bosses are hoarding is itself being vastly reduced by their behaviour – a self-defeating stupidity in synergic terms ! Mutually supporting, rather than competitive, forms of interaction however can also enhance rather than detract from the maintenance of our values. This is the case, since by caring about the whole we can avoid forms of growth that fail to maintain what is good about our world. The equality of worth or values amongst participants assumed by the ‘care’ approach establishes a network of links amongst all the members of society. This multidirectional web leads to a form of dynamic society that naturally can evolve in a positive way, if it is free to do so.

Social Self-Help

In many ways the emphasis we gain from complexity studies, where better options result from agent autonomy than those obtained by external design, leads us towards a political stance that may be termed anarchistic. Despite authoritarian misinformation, this refers to a system without leaders or dominance (whether these be communist or capitalist, governmental or company), in other words a self-organizing form of social order, rather than the ‘lawless disorder’ implied by the word’s vulgar usage. The efficiency advantages resulting from the ability to explore all of state space, and not just those avenues allowed by vested interests, makes this form of dynamic democracy superior in all ways to the more exploitative and unsustainable static forms common throughout the world today (in both their right and left wing versions).

These considerations tie in with similar concerns within the ecological, feminist and human rights movements, and these all support forms of organization that do not enshrine a single value (e.g. money or power) as superior to all others. Within a more balanced multidimensional value system we see clearly that maximising single values forces such negative impacts and divisions on the rest that the very existence of society and even of our planet is threatened. Whether a form of stateless libertarian socialism would result in solutions to the failures and self-contradictions of domination capitalism is of course open to debate, but ethical decisions here will depend on a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of multivalued self-organizing systems. This aspect has so far been neglected as a research direction, where dynamic equilibria are usually studied with respect to over-simplified or one-dimensional fitness criteria.


Recognising the biases inherent within our current social organizations does require some education and openness, an approach allowing the free availability of critical information that is increasingly being prevented today by monopolistic media interests. Working together, rather than in opposition, can only increase the positive benefits to society as a whole. This synergistic fact is obvious after a little thought. Behaviours that tend to stifle or prevent people using their talents cannot enhance our overall lives, at best they can trade-off some values against others, usually leading to social divisions and a need then to resort to force to maintain the status-quo. A stressed ‘master/slave’ society cannot be regarded as a optimised one, thus it behoves independent scientists to look for and demonstrate better ways of political organization.

The self-organizing ideas on which complexity science is based support (in principle) many similar (historical or current) forms of genuinely free social organization. If we understand that society itself requires cooperation to survive, then this empowers us to look more closely at cooperative effects in both human and ecological fields. This alternative (to the conflict based studies so dominant in the current life sciences), can be expected to show in stark relief the massive advantages of cooperation over conflict as a way of organizing our planet. To obtain these advantages however, this awareness needs to be globally disseminated, in such a way that the people of this planet understand that there are valid alternatives to the socially and environmentally crippling ‘control freak’ mentality evident within all our governments (in blatent opposition to their professed democracy), and the divisive company elites that they increasingly represent .

Chris Lucas is a researcher working on the philosophy and new sciences of Complexity Theory and Artificial Life. He has been involved full time in this area since 1994, and previously did related research in his spare time. He is the founder of CALResCo and Director of Research.  He holds a 1st in physics and computer science and is a member of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS).  He lives in Manchester, England, U.K. Resume.

Reposted from CALResCo.

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