A revolutionary discovery in science has been underway for more than fifty years and goes by the name of Universal Darwinism, or the theory of universal selection. This tenet holds that natural selection, or Darwinian survival of the fittest, is at work among systems that are well beyond the traditional bounds of biology. It reveals that all of the same fundamental processes involved in life’s evolution are also operative in the evolution of our cosmos. The Darwinian mechanisms of iteration, variation and selection are present even in nonbiological systems. Once thought to be associated only with life, also present are entropy reduction and regulatory feedback (See 'Mechanisms' below). From physics and quantum physics to chemistry, geology, astronomy and the like, many such findings have also been confirmed by scientists the world around. They have revealed not only that survival of the fittest and elimination of the weak are present among Nature’s many systems but that these processes are inescapably cumulative—just as they are in life itself.
The history of Universal Darwinism was, until recently, fragmentary at best. Individuals from Richard Dawkins to Donald Campbell contributed somewhat sporadically to the field as a whole. This changed in the 1990’s and 2000’s, however, with the work of Gary Cziko, Francis Heylighen, John Campbell and D. B. Kelley. They have together provided a much more accurate account of where this field stands today. The general history of Universal Darwinism, however, is as follows:
Richard Dawkins: In 1976, the famous, British ethologist Richard Dawkins stated in his important work The Selfish Gene that “Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things.” Dawkins thus claimed that natural selection “shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people.” He therefore holds that, from atoms to humans, we are products of survival of the fittest operating at every level. Having explained gene selection in this same book, Dawkins is a well-known contributor to selectionism as a whole. He even coined the term “Universal Darwinism” in 1983 based on his belief that even life should be universal throughout our cosmos.
Wojciech Zurek: Also in the 1980’s, physicist Wojciech Zurek of the Los Alamos National Laboratory showed that survival of the fittest exists even among subatomic particles. Zurek has revealed its operation in quantum mechanics via his well-noted principle of einselection, or “environment-induced superselection.” In short, he has shown how classical physics emerges from quantum physics via a process that he calls “Quantum Darwinism.” Like species and their various adaptations, subatomic particles too are self-organized as a direct result of survival of the fittest behavioralisms and their corresponding information. Particles providing the true building blocks behind all of Nature’s various materials, Zurek has shown that Quantum Darwinism plays a critical role in the self-organization of everything that we perceive in classical physics.
Julius Rebek: Since the 1990’s, selection’s presence has also been confirmed among molecules through numerous experiments by Julius Rebek and his well-accepted process of “chemical selection.” Rebek showed, at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, that survival of the fittest is operative even in biochemistry. As pointed out by Dawkins, Rebek’s work has even proven that the stable molecular arrangements leading to life on Earth would have been naturally selected as well. Moreover, this is in perfect accord with the findings of Alexander Oparin in the 1920’s, the Miller-Urey experiment in the 50’s and much that has followed.
Donald T. Campbell: In the 1980’s and 90’s, for instance, the American social scientist Donald T. Campbell (1916-1996) developed his principle of BVSR, or blind variation and selective retention. Campbell recognized, like Karl Popper before him, that science itself is advanced bit by bit via survival of the fittest information and elimination of the weakest. Like the Socratic Method, it is forever refined via doubt itself, as that which remains must ultimately be true. He thus showed BVSR to apply universally throughout both biology and anthropology in particular.
Daniel Dennett: Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is another known contributor to Universal Darwinism. He has claimed that, even in our modern era, selection continues to pervade science after science much like a “universal acid” that cannot be stopped.
Francis Heylighen: Belgian cyberneticist, Dr. Francis Heylighen, is another well-known advocate of universal selection theory. He has knowingly contributed to Universal Darwinism via his work in complex systems. Regarding all such systems in Nature, Heylighen states that “Normally, the fitter configuration will outcompete the less fit one, so that no resources are left for the latter (survival of the fittest). Such a generalization of the principle of selective retention may be called the principle of natural selection.” He thus defines selection in terms of BVSR to further quantify his findings in cybernetics, memetics and more.
Henry Plotkin: Psychologist Henry Plotkin is another well-known contributor. He too believes that selection can be applied more generally, extending it to physics and other sciences. In his book Evolutionary Worlds Without End, he also concludes that, via selection, life should be present on other habitable worlds. Like Dawkins, he holds that selection is universal, as life too should exist universally throughout our cosmos.
Gary Cziko: Gary Cziko coined the phrase “universal selection theory” in 1995. He defined this term in order to encompass all of the many different forms of selection arising in biology and anthropology. From natural selection and sexual selection to rational selection, more universal terminology was needed to encompass all of the many forms that continue to be uncovered.
Lee Smolin: Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin too has made many important predictions about Universal Darwinism. Specifically, his theory of cosmological natural selection holds not only that blackholes could give rise to other universes but that they could provide wormholes by which to travel there. While this theory may be unlikely and even difficult to prove, Smolin has provided extremely well-argued reasoning that large-scale systems too are regulatory feedback systems governed via selection. From stars to entire galaxies, he has shown that even these astronomical productions are governed in full via negative feedback—again, just like species themselves.
John Campbell: Author John Campbell made a number of other important contributions in 2011. Based upon Zurek’s work in Quantum Darwinism, Campbell holds that everything from subatomic particles to man is a product of Darwinian processes. He quantifies his work via decoherence and Bayesian updating. His is therefore an information-based approach wherein data is accumulated in adaptive, internal models via evolutionary research and development among systems over time. This is consistent with the work of physicist John Wheeler who showed that information itself is the most fundamental constituent of everything known. Consequently, data is both accumulated and self-organized via the trial and error of every evolutionary step—just as it is in genetics.
D. B. Kelley: Author D. B. Kelley has provided what is perhaps the most complete account of where this growing field stands today. He has shown that this principle ultimately involves ‘the survival of the fittest systems.’ Natural selection involves not the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life as defined by Darwin but the preservation of favored systems in the struggle for existence.
In his 2013 book The Origin of Everything, Kelley shows such reductionism to explain the emergence of all of Nature’s many systems. From space-time and subatomic particles to large-scale systems themselves, he argues that each is a product of the preservation of stable systems. This work is quantified, in part, by showing that species aren’t the only things in nature that involve regulatory feedback. It reveals that, from small-scale systems to large-scale systems, everything is a product of negative feedback at every level. Furthermore, species aren’t the only phenomena that involve entropy reduction, or reduced chaos, as greater stability can be instilled among all such phenomena. Because increased fitness arises at many a turn—even outside of life—the universe too has involved a progression from chaos to stability. As explained by Dawkins, it is thus populated by many stable phenomena.
In addition to these and other findings, universal selection is also in agreement with biology’s three-part algorithm. This refers to the fundamental mechanisms responsible for both stability and evolution. Again, these are iteration, variation and selection. In then applying these mechanisms to Nature at large, all natural phenomena ultimately being systems at their true foundations in physics, each iterates its own cyclical behavior one generation at a time much like life itself. Second, like living things and their many genes, systems also vary through what Kelley calls recombination and system drift. Thirdly, however, only the most favorable ensembles are naturally selected to endure.
To reveal the means by which information is preserved as it is in genetics, Zurek’s process of decoherence shows how information in quantum physics is both translated and manifested in the classical world. As claimed by John Campbell, however, it is also manifested through Bayesian updating, or adaptive internal models that help phenomena endure their surroundings via stored information.
Moreover, like DNA, all materials possess definitive properties, or capabilities, which are identical in every regard to data itself. In chemistry, for example, the process by which new properties arise is called emergence. Through emergence, new capabilities appear, making the newly formed molecule more than what it was prior. It possesses a new ability that it didn’t have before its newfound union. It thus possesses more information than it did previously—and this too is the same principle found in genetics at its core.
Universal Darwinism is a field that is utterly exploding in science. Scientists around the world are finding that it explains self-organization, or order itself, in almost every inquiry. They’re discovering not only that selection demands stability but that stability demands order. Kelley thus claims that the information present in every ensemble correlates directly with the order of the ensemble itself. In other words, order too is a direct product of the innate stability and organization of the assemblage at hand.
Consequently, more and more scientists are finding that no line can be drawn with regard to where selection either begin or ends. Kelley claims that survival of the fittest systems cannot apply to some ensembles and not others. If it applies to some natural phenomena, it must ultimately be applicable to all. What is clear is that no line of demarcation has thus been inferred, showing where survival of the fittest does or doesn’t pertain among systems. It is a simple principle of ordinary physics and must therefore apply indiscriminately to all stable phenomena. In accord with everything now being discovered in science, universal selection appears universal indeed—and it is now being applied accordingly.
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