Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

9. Synergy

The ideas of synergy and synergism in many ways mirror those of self-organizing systems. We discuss it here because it illustrates cooperation among systems and the emergence of novelty.


Synergy - the cooperative action of a combination of entities in which the total effect is greater than the sum of the effects of the individual entities.


The concept of synergy is most often associated with the work of R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), the mathematician/engineer who designed the geodesic dome and who was responsible for many other innovations in design. His main work, contained in two volumes, Synergetics and Synergetics 2, has been described as the study of spatial complexity. His emphasis was on three dimensional geometry and a holistic approach to nature, which he saw as a web of interacting patterns.

Fuller used the word synergy to describe an important property of systems. He said, Synergy means the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. This, of course, is another way of saying the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The word has come into general use as a description of the change in behavior when two or more entities act together. Often the reference is to the action of the combination which is more than the sum of each separately. The word is derived from the Greek, combining syn (together) with ergon (work).


Fuller gave some interesting examples which illustrate the synergetic property of systems. If there were but one mass in the universe there would be no way to detect its ability to curve space. Two masses in interaction constitute the simplest of systems. The attractive force between them comes as an unpredictable surprise.

Gravity is a synergetic product of a system of masses. That its strength is in direct proportion to the product of their masses and changes inversely with the square of the distance between them was the surprise that delighted Newton. ( G = m1m2/d2 )

The behavior of alloys is another example of synergy. A common observation is that a chain is as strong as its weakest link. How strong is a chain of alternating links of iron, chromium, and nickel? The tensile strength of iron is 60,000 pounds per square inch. That of chromium is 70,000 pounds per square inch and nickel tensile strength is 80,000 psi. But put these metals into combination and chrome-nickel steel is produced. The alloy has a tensile strength of 350,000 psi. Fuller was convinced that nature worked through synergistic reactions. For him all things were connected and the connections developed characteristics of their own.

Lawrence Henderson in an early influential work, The Fitness of the Environment (1913), emphasizes the interdependence and the cooperative effects of the different properties of the elements. According to Henderson it is the combined properties of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that "form unique assemblages which are of biological significance. Without the synergetic effects of these combinations of elements the development of living organisms would have been impossible.

Synergetic reactions are well known in the medical community. It is important to the medical practitioner to know what medications are currently being taken before new ones are prescribed. A study published in The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in May, 1996 suggested that the Gulf War Syndrome reported by some soldiers might have been caused by exposure to ordinarily harmless doses of two or more chemicals that together might cause nerve damage. They reported experiments in which low doses of chemicals to which the troops were exposed were given to chickens. Individually they had no effect. But when given in combination the chickens suffered severe effects, sometimes including total paralysis and death.

Synergetic reactions are the same as the new properties that emerge from the increasing complexity of systems.