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Abstract: There have been many different ways of characterizing and describing the phenomenon of life over the years. One aspect that has not often been stressed is life’s emergent properties—the synergies that are produced when many elements or parts combine to produce distinctive new “wholes”. Indeed, complex living systems represent a multi-leveled, multi-faceted hierarchy of synergistic effects that has evolved over several billion years. Some of the many examples of synergy at various levels of life are briefly described, and it is emphasized that life is still creating itself and still exploring its potentialities.
We also marvel at the synergies that have been achieved by socially organized species, yet another distinct new level of cooperation (and synergy) in the natural world. As noted earlier, even bacterial colonies have exploited the benefits of sociality, but the apotheosis of this survival strategy has been achieved by much larger and more complex organisms. A popular example is the naked mole-rat, an African rodent species that lives in large underground colonies (usually numbering 75-80 but sometimes over 200). Mole-rats subsist by eating plant roots and succulent tubers. Affectionately dubbed “saber-toothed sausages” because they are hairless and have two outsize front teeth for digging, naked mole-rats are a particularly significant example of a division/combination of labor in mammals. In fact, these odd-looking animals utilize specialized worker “castes” and a pattern of breeding restrictions that is highly suggestive of the social insects.
Why do mole-rats utilize this highly cooperative survival strategy? Biologist Paul Sherman and his co-workers, who have studied these animals extensively, provide a bioeconomic explanation: “We hypothesize that naked mole-rats live in groups because of several ecological factors. The harsh environment, patchy food distribution and the difficulty of burrowing when the soil is dry and hard, as well as intense predation, make dispersal and independent breeding almost impossible. By cooperating to build, maintain and defend a food-rich subterranean fortress, each mole-rat enhances its own survival” (Sherman et al., 1992, p. 78). (Although it is not stressed in the mole-rat research literature, another critically important facilitator is a cooperative relationship between the mole-rats and a bacterial symbiont that can break down the cellulose in succulent tubers.) In other words, the mole-rats’ survival strategy is ultimately based on the many synergies they achieve.
What makes this example especially pertinent here is the fact that the honeyguides also form symbiotic/synergistic partnerships with humans, the nomadic Boran people of northern Kenya, with benefits for both partners that can be quantified. Biologists Hussein Isack and Hans-Ulrich Reyer (1989) conducted a systematic study of this behavior pattern some years ago and found that Boran honey hunting groups were approximately three times as efficient at finding bees’ nests when they were guided by the birds. They required an average of 3.2 hours to locate the nest compared with 8.9 hours when they were unassisted. The benefit to the honey guides was even greater. An estimated 96% of the bees’ nests that were discovered during the study would not have been accessible to the birds had the humans not used tools to pry them open.
This naturalistic approach to understanding living systems flourished in the years after World War Two, when scientists began to address the concrete questions of how life originated and how it developed the capacity to reproduce itself. Stanley Miller’s famous experiments in which amino acids were produced in a laboratory, James Watson and Francis Crick’s breakthrough discovery of the double helix and the role of DNA in heredity, and a vast outpouring of work in many sub-disciplines of biology in the half-century since have greatly enriched our understanding of the physical and chemical properties of living systems. It now seems evident that life can and did arise out of the raw materials and synthetic processes that were readily available in the natural world at that time, perhaps even in an environment that was quite hostile to our own aerobic form of life. So, even if, in accordance with the so-called anthropic argument, the origins of life required a rare concatenation of improbable preconditions, it is not necessary to invoke a miraculous event.
In addition to these well-known properties of living systems, there is another important but perhaps less appreciated attribute that should also be added to the list. Even the simplest forms of life embody a complex hierarchy of synergistic effects. Synergy, a ubiquitous phenomenon in the natural world, can be defined as Synergy is often associated with the cliché “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (which dates back to Aristotle), but wholes are very often not greater than their parts—just different. A classic example is water, a liquid that results when two elemental gases are combined.
As I have discussed in detail elsewhere (Corning 1983, 2003, 2005), synergy represents one of the great governing principles of the natural world. It should properly rank right up there with such heavyweight concepts as gravity, energy, information and entropy as one of the keys to understanding how the world works. But more important, synergy has been greatly underrated as a source of creativity in evolution. It has been a major causal agency in the evolution of biological complexity. To paraphrase the novelist and polymath Arthur Koestler, true novelty occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate. In accordance with what I call the “Synergism Hypothesis,” it is the functional effects produced by various forms of synergy in relation to the problems of survival and reproduction that have been responsible for the “progressive” evolution of complexity over time in living systems.
I hasten to add that the Synergism Hypothesis is fully consistent with Darwin’s theory and with natural selection, but in contrast with various gene-centered theories (not to mention theories that posit some law-like progression or an internal self-making process in evolution), the Synergism Hypothesis is in effect an economic (or bioeconomic) theory of complexity. Synergy is always a contingent phenomenon in which the survival benefits must outweigh the costs. Another way of putting it is that synergies of various kinds are responsible for cooperation in the living world, not the other way around.
Similarly, at the level of the genome, it goes without saying that genes do not act alone, even when major single-gene effects occur. An example is the so-called homeobox gene complex, which is responsible for defining the basic body plan for a wide range of organisms, from insects to humans. And the human genome sequencing project has established, among other things, that our genes are preeminently purveyors of cooperation and synergy production. For instance, there are some 1,195 distinctive genes associated with producing the human heart, 2,164 with our white blood cells and a staggering 3,195 with the human brain (Little 1995).
Another whole new level of synergy in evolution was achieved with the appearance of multicellular organisms. Some insight into how this occurred is provided by the Volvocales, a primitive order of aquatic green algae that form tight-knit colonies. Volvocales have been popular with students of evolution ever since the 19th century, because their diverse members seem to mirror some of the various steps toward complex multicellular organization. The smallest of these species () have only a handful of cells arranged in a disk, while the that give the Volvocale line its name may have some 60,000 cells in the shape of a hollow sphere that is easily visible to the naked eye. Each cell is independent, yet the colony-members collaborate closely. For instance, the entire colony is propelled by a “fur coat” of flagella whose coordinated efforts keep the sphere slowly spinning in the water.