Sunday, 25 March 2012

Universal Darwinism

Universal Darwinism is the idea that Darwinism is a broadly applicable theory - which applies to organic biology, but also applies to culture, development, the brain - and many systems beyond the organic realm.

Darwin's theory of evolution is substrate-neutral. Darwin himself recognized this - and included passages to that effect in "The Descent of Man", saying that:

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

The Wikipedia page on Universal Darwinism gives a long list of fields to which Darwin's theory of evolution has been applied. It ranges from the social sciences through complex adaptive systems to some much more speculative ideas - such as the idea that the visible cosmos itself evolved.

Memetics and cultural evolution represent Universal Darwinism applied to human culture.


Though Darwinism has historically been largely confined to biology, Universal Darwinism represents a massive expansion of its domain - into the social sciences, ontogeny and beyond: into physics, chemistry and systems theory. Position, velocity, mass, charge and many other physical attributes are all copied with variation and selection.


The idea was first expressed in modern times by Donald Campbell. One of the best histories of the idea comes from Henry Plotkin's book "Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge". In the book, Plotkin repurposed the term "Universal Darwinism", assigning it its modern usage. He traces the idea from Darwin, Huxley, Piaget, Campbell and Popper before getting on to the topic of natural selection within the immune system and the nervous system.


Some (e.g. Geoffrey Hodgson) have questioned the "universality" of Universal Darwinism - saying that life is confined to our planet - and that the term "Generalised Darwinism" would be more appropriate. I think that "Degenerative Darwinism" - which applies Darwin's theory to fractures, ripples, crystals and other commonplace adaptive systems which are not "advanced" enough to exhibit cumulative adaptation - justifies use of the term "universal Darwinism". It does this without recourse to controversial ideas about black holes, quantum physics, or biologically-derived evolving systems, like culture, technology or modern computer systems.

History of the term

Richard Dawkins appears to have coined the term "Universal Darwinism" in 1983 to describe the conjecture that any possible life forms existing outside the solar system would necessarily evolve by Darwinian means.

Henry Plotkin's 1997 book "Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge" had a chapter titled "Universal Darwinism". This redefined the term to refer to broader forms of evolution - specifically evolution within organisms (the immune system and learning) rather than between organisms.

Susan Blackmore, in her 1999 book The Meme Machine, also has a chapter titled "Universal Darwinism". This discusses applying Darwinism to a broad range of phenomena - including human culture.


"Universal Darwinism" is a very general theory. To make detailed predictions in specific cases, it typically depends on other theories. It is thus like a framework on which other, more specific theories are based. It has 'spaces' for theories of:

  • Mutation;
  • Selection criteria;
  • Recombination;
  • Development.

These elements are typically treated as pluggable black boxes by the theory - though there are typically constraints on what can be plugged in (for example, a mutation can't be allowed to be any possible change).

This incompleteness is expressed in papers like: Why we need a generalized Darwinism, and why generalized Darwinism is not enough.


Much of the debate over the utility of Universal Darwinism has taken place within economics - one of the first social sciences to take Darwinism seriously. However, economics has proved to be a myopic context in which to criticize the theory, with many critics getting out of their depth and struggling to understand the topic.


"Universal Darwinism" is a highly-criticized subject. It hasn't attracted as much heat as cultural evolution, memetics, or evolutionary psychology, but there are still many critics with a lot of different issues. Probably the single most important thing to say about the critics is that they are mistaken. However some of them do highlight genuine issues with the theory.

Probably the single most important criticism is that "Universal Darwinism" is mistaken because copying with variation and selection is not a scientific theory - since it is compatible with all observations and so is irrefutable. Levit, Hossfeld and Witt (2010) present this criticism in more detail. NeoDarwinism avoids this criticism since it claims that mutations are 'random' (in a bizarre technical sense of the word). However in Universal Darwinism, mutations are merely 'blind' (in a bizarre technical sense of the word due to Donald Campbell). This both weaker, harder to explain and more confusing, which leads critics to this objection.

A weaker version of this criticism is that "Universal Darwinism" constrains expectations only weakly - and so isn't very useful. However, applying weak constraints is still better than not applying constraints at all.

Speculative extensions

Some applications of Darwinism are pretty speculative. The idea that the visible universe is an adaptation - by James Gardner and Lee Smolin - is one example of this. These speculative aspects of universal Darwinism should not be used to detract from those that are hard science.


For a more up-to-date list, see: the universal Darwinism book list.



  1. Natural Selection Is Ubiquitous

    Higgs Particle? Dark Energy/Matter? Epigenetics?
    These Are YOK!
    Update Concepts-Comprehension…

    Evolution Is The Quantum Mechanics Of Natural Selection.
    The quantum mechanics of every process is its evolution.
    Quantum mechanics are mechanisms, possible or probable or actual mechanisms of natural selection.

    Universe-Energy-Mass-Life Compilation

    A. The Universe

    From the Big-Bang it is a rationally commonsensical conjecture that the gravitons, the smallest base primal particles of the universe, must be both mass and energy, i.e. inert mass yet in motion even at the briefest fraction of a second of the pre Big Bang singularity. This is rationally commonsensical since otherwise the Big would not have Banged, the superposition of mass and energy would not have been resolved.
    The universe originates, derives and evolves from this energy-mass dualism which is possible and probable due to the small size of the gravitons.
    Since gravitation Is the propensity of energy reconversion to mass and energy is mass in motion, gravity is the force exerted between mass formats.
    All the matter of the universe is a progeny of the gravitons evolutions, of the natural selection of mass, of some of the mass formats attaining temporary augmented energy constraint in their successive generations, with energy drained from other mass formats, to temporarily postpone, survive, the reversion of their own constitutional mass to the pool of cosmic energy fueling the galactic clusters expansion set in motion by the Big Bang.

    B. Earth Life

    Earth Life is just another mass format. A self-replicating mass format. Self-replication is its mode of evolution, natural selection. Its smallest base primal units are the RNAs genes.
    The genesis of RNAs genes, life’s primal organisms, is rationally commonsensical thus highly probable, the “naturally-selected” RNA nucleotides. Life began/evolved on Earth with the natural selection of inanimate RNA, then of some RNA nucleotides, then arriving at the ultimate mode of natural selection, self-replication.

    C. Know Thyself. Life Is Simpler Than We Are Told

    The origin-reason and the purpose-fate of life are mechanistic, ethically and practically valueless. Life is the cheapest commodity on Earth.
    As Life is just another mass format, due to the oneness of the universe it is commonsensical that natural selection is ubiquitous for ALL mass formats and that life, self-replication, is its extension. And it is commonsensical, too, that evolutions, broken symmetry scenarios, are ubiquitous in all processes in all disciplines and that these evolutions are the “quantum mechanics” of the processes.

    Human life is just one of many nature’s routes for the natural survival of RNAs, the base primal Earth organisms.

    Life’s evolution, self-replication:

    Genes (organisms) to genomes (organisms) to mono-cellular to multicellular organisms:

    Individual mono-cells to cooperative mono-cells communities, “cultures”.
    Mono-cells cultures to neural systems, then to nerved multicellular organisms.

    Human life is just one of many nature’s routes for the natural survival of RNAs, the base Earth organism.
    It is up to humans themselves to elect the purpose and format of their life as individuals and as group-members.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    An Embarrassingly Obvious Theory Of Everything

  2. Enjoyed this post, thanks Tim.

    I've also posted on the topic, here:

    JT Velikovsky