Evolutionary Theory
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Evolutionary Theory

We see evolution as based on the trial-and-error process of variation and natural selection of systems at all levels of complexity. The name of 'natural selection' comes from the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, which distinguishes "natural" selection from "artificial" selection, where specific features are retained or eliminated depending on a goal or intention (e.g. the objective of a cattle breeder who would like to have cows that produce more milk). The "implicit goal" of natural selection is maintenance or reproduction of a configuration at some level of abstraction. The selection is natural in the sense that there is no actor or purposive system making the selection. The selection we are discussing is purely automatic or spontaneous, without plan or design involved.

Evolution typically leads to greater complexity, although one must be careful how one defines complexity.

Selection or self-organization?

Many criticisms have been and are being raised against the Darwinian view of evolution. We will here not discuss the criticisms stating that there are designs or plans guiding evolution, but focus on a more recent upsurge of people, many of whom are associated with the systems movement, who state that natural selection must be complemented by self-organization in order to explain evolution. (see e.g. Jantsch, 1979; Kauffman, 1993; Swenson, 19). However, we must not confuse the specific theory of Darwinian evolution with the general principle of natural selection.

The narrow or specific interpretation of Darwinism sees evolution as the result of selection by the environment acting on a population of organisms competing for resources. The winners of the competition, those who are most fit to gain the resources necessary for survival and reproduction, will be selected, the others are eliminated. Even when abstracting from the fact that we are speaking about "organisms", this view of evolution entails two strong restriction:

  1. it assumes that there is a multitude ("population") of configurations undergoing selection;
  2. it assumes that selection is carried out by their common environment.
Like Swenson (19) notes, it cannot explain the evolution of a "population of one". In our present, more general interpretation, there is no need for competition between simultaneously present configurations. A configuration can be selected or eliminated independently of the presence of other configurations: a single system can pass through a sequence of configurations, some of which are retained while others are eliminated (see the Principle of Selective Retention). The only "competition" involved is one between subsequent states of the same system. Such selection can still be "natural".

More importantly this selection does not in any way presuppose the existence of an environment external to the configuration undergoing selection. It is easy enough to imagine configurations that are intrinsically stable or unstable. A cloud of gas molecules in a vacuum (i.e. an "empty" environment) will diffuse, independently of any outside forces. A crystal in the same vacuum will retain its rigid crystalline structure. The first configuration (the cloud) is eliminated, the second one maintains. The stability of the structure, functioning as a selection criterion, is purely internal to the configuration: no outsides forces or pressures are necessary to explain them.

In cases like these, the selection is inherent in the configuration itself, and an asymmetric transition from varying to stable may be called "self-organization". In the present view, "natural selection" encompasses both external, Darwinian selection, and internal, "self-organizing" selection.

See also: Servers on Evolutionary Theory

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Jan 27, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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The Physics of Evolution

The trial-and-error method



Direction and Speed of Evolution

Mathematical Modeling of Evolution

Evolutionary Systems


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