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Synergies Among Behaviors Drive the Discovery of Productive Interactions


When behaviors assemble into combinations, then synergies have a central role in the discovery of productive patterns of behavior. In our view—what we call the Synergy Emergence Principle (SEP)—synergies are dynamic attractors, drawing interactions toward greater returns as they happen, in the moment. This Principle offers an alternative to the two conventionally acknowledged routes to discovery: directed problem solving, involving forethought and planning; and the complete randomness of trial and error. Natural selection has a role in the process, in humans favoring the maintenance and improvement of certain key underlying capabilities, such as prosocial helping and episodic foresight, but selection is not required for discovery by synergy (which occurs too rapidly for selection anyway). Here we discuss the consequences of the SEP for the evolution in humans of key synergies such as tool usage and interactions that reward cooperation, show how discovery by synergy and the selection of synergy-supporting abilities formed a positive feedback loop, and show how synergies can combine, forming clusters and packages that are the core of institutions and cultures. Finally, clusters and packages represent an intermediate level of organization above the individual and below whole society, with consequences for our understanding of the major transitions in evolution.

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This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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Correspondence to Jake P. Keenan.

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Keenan, J.P., McShea, D.W. Synergies Among Behaviors Drive the Discovery of Productive Interactions. Biol Theory 18, 43–62 (2023).

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