The Global Brain

Chapter 10

Synergy

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.

St. Augustine, 399 A.D.

What we have traced so far is society's increasing complexity and the many indicators that we could now be living through the most dramatic and crucial period of human history: the progressive integration of human minds into a single living system—a global brain.

Yet we do not have to look far to see that humanity today is also on the brink of disaster. Paradoxically, the very same technological, scientific, and social advances that have pushed us so far forward may also contain the seeds of our demise. We appear to be wavering precariously between two mutually exclusive directions: breaking through to become a global social superorganism or breaking down into chaos and possible extinction.

Clearly, given the choice, most people would not opt consciously for catastrophe. Nevertheless, as a group we seem to be drifting in that direction. Unable to fathom the complexity of the society we have become, we seem powerless to steer it in the direction we would want it to go. Why is this? Why are we not more like the organism we have the potential to be?

The answer lies in what characterizes a successfully functioning organism. When we look at organisms that work—and just about every organism apart from human society does work—we find that there is one particular quality that they all share: the many components naturally and spontaneously function together, in harmony with the whole. This characteristic can be seen operating in organisms as different as a slime mold, an oak tree, or the human body. This harmonious interaction can be described by the word synergy, derived from the Greek syn-ergos, meaning "to work together."

Synergy does not imply any coercion or restraint, nor is it brought about by deliberate effort. Each individual element of the system works toward its own goals, and the goals themselves may be quite varied. Yet the elements function in ways that are spontaneously mutually supportive. Consequently, there is little, if any, intrinsic conflict.

The word synergy has sometimes been used in the sense of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But this is not the word's root meaning; this interpretation is a consequence of synergy in its original sense. Because the elements in a synergistic system, support each other, they also support the functioning of the system as a whole, and the performance of the whole is improved.

An excellent example of a system with high synergy is your own body. You are an assortment of several trillion individual cells, each acting for its own interest, yet each simultaneously supporting the good of the whole. A skin cell in your finger is doing its job as a skin cell, taking in various nourishments, getting rid of its waste products, and living and dying as a skin cell. It is not directly concerned with what is happening to a skin cell in your toe nor to what is happening to your bone cells, brain cells, or muscle cells. It is simply looking after its own interests. Yet, its own interests are also the general interests of other cells in the body, and the activity of the organism as a whole. If it were not for this high degree of synergy, each of us would be just a mass of jelly, each cell acting only for itself and not contributing to the rest of the body.

Synergy in an organism is the essence of life, and it is intimately related to health. When for some reason synergy drops and the organism as a whole does not receive the full support of its many parts, it becomes ill. When synergy is lost altogether, the organism dies. The individual cell may live on, but the whole, the living organism, no longer exists.

Likewise in social groups, synergy represents the extent to which the activities of the individual support the group as a whole. Anthropologists studying primitive tribal systems have found that groups high in synergy tend to be low in conflict and aggression, both between individuals and between individuals and the group. This does not mean that such societies are full of "do-gooders" desperately trying to help each other; rather, they are societies in which the social and psychological structures are such that the activity of the individual is naturally in tune with the needs of others and the needs of the group.

Viewed as a system, human society today would appear to be in a state of comparatively low synergy. As we shall see shortly, many of the crises now facing us may be symptomatic of this deeper, underlying problem. Yet as much as we might want increased synergy in society, it will not come about simply through desire, intellectual decision, argument, or coercion. The amount of synergy in a society is a reflection of the way in which we perceive ourselves in relation to the world around. In order to increase synergy, then, we will need to change some fundamental assumptions that lie at the core of our thinking and behavior. This will mean evolving inwardly as much as we have done outwardly.

The spearhead of evolution is now self-reflective consciousness. If evolution is indeed to push on to yet higher levels of integration, the most crucial changes will take place in the realm of human consciousness. In effect the evolutionary process has now become internalized within each of us. To see what this means, and how we may evolve inwardly, let us start by looking at how our internal model of ourselves governs our perception, thinking, and action.

Date created: 1-Feb-08