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On Universal Darwinism

Evolution Institute

There’s an outfit called the Evolution Institute that of late has been hawking what it calls “Universal Darwinism.” Universal Darwinism is the belief that Darwin’s theory can be applied fruitfully to many scientific disciplines, not just to biology. In this view, Darwinian explanations for complexity can shed light on quantum physics, cosmology, neuroscience, medicine and other scientific disciplines. The conventional assertion that “Darwin had the best idea ever” is just atheists’ sophomoric infatuation with their own creation myth. But there’s a bit more substance to the EI’s “Universal Darwinism” than one normally finds in the atheists’ boudoir. 

In “Why Physics Needs Darwin,” the Evolution Institute recently interviewed John O. Campbell, an independent scholar who has written on universal Darwinism. 


Surprisingly well-developed Darwinian theories have been proposed to explain the creation and evolution of complexity not just in genetics and biology (including evolutionary psychology), but in cosmology, quantum physics, neuroscience, and practically every branch of the social sciences.

“Survivors Survive”

The application of Darwin’s theory to everything from quantum mechanics to social science entails taking “natural selection” as a metaphor. Darwin proposed that biological adaptation is the result of differential reproduction of heritable variations, and there is no biological adaptation, reproduction, heritability, or variation in any arena except biology. Such unfocused application of a metaphor to… well… everything… leads a thoughtful observer to wonder if the Darwinian metaphor is not much more than a tautology, a banality dressed up like science. You can get a lot of mileage out of “survivors survive.”

There is, however, some substance to Campbell’s claims.


… this ubiquity [of Darwinian theories in non-biological sciences] raises the question of ‘why is the Darwinian process observed so widely in nature?’ As your question implies, this may have to do with the nature of existence itself. We might consider that existence tends to be rare, complex and fragile due to the pervasive dissipative action of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law is one of the most fundamental laws of physics, and states that the total entropy — that is, disorder — of an isolated system can only increase over time. Darwinian processes may be viewed as nature’s method of countering this universal tendency towards disorder and non-existence.

Metaphysical Theories

Theories that have to do with “the nature of existence itself” are metaphysical theories, not theories in natural science. Campbell’s Darwinian metaphor is really metaphysics. And of course metaphysics is the foundation of all the sciences, whether implicitly or explicitly. What is it metaphysically, one may ask, that can “counter this universal tendency towards disorder and non-existence”?

Campbell explains:

I believe the most important key concept is knowledge. The diverse fields of study mentioned above all involve knowledge repositories such as genomes, quantum wave functions, mental models, and cultural models. To understand what knowledge really means, we need to understand its inverse, ignorance… information is a measure of how ignorant the model was. This model, by the way, could be any system that attempts to predict any outcome in the world. For example, it could be a scientific model, which proposes a certain hypothesis; or the genome of a species, which attempts to predict the best ways to survive and reproduce; or a quantum wave function, which probabalistically predicts the future states of quantum systems… Knowledge involves the reduction of ignorance.

Campbell is right. Information is the intelligible principle of a thing — it’s form, in classical terms — and information entails the restriction of outcomes. A system without information has no specificity, no form, and exists in a state of maximal entropy. Form reduces entropy and introduces order and specificity. A pile of Scrabble tiles thrown on the floor is in a state of high entropy, and the pattern of the letters is meaningless. Scrabble tiles lined up on a Scrabble board by a master player are in a state of low entropy, and are full of meaning. 

Form and Darwinism

What is not clear is this: what does this millennia-old concept of form have to do with Darwinism? Darwin’s theory, after all, was a radical attempt to explain biological specification and complexity — biological form — without a designer. In other words, Darwinism was an attempt to explain biological information without knowledge. If knowledge acts on a system, we need not invoke Darwin to explain it. Information-rich systems are readily explainable as the product of intelligent design. In fact, knowledge presupposes intelligence. To the extent that knowledge can be inferred in a system, Darwinian explanations — explanations without intelligence — are worthless.  

Darwinism is not a level of explanation for information-rich systems. Many systems do indeed accumulate knowledge, but such accumulation necessarily points, not to “survival of survivors,” but to a knower. Accumulation of knowledge — of specified complexity in a system — is, in classical terms, teleology, and teleology has profound metaphysical implications. As Thomas Aquinas observed in his Fifth Way, teleology presupposes a mind. A directed arrow presupposes an archer. 

One has the sense that the Evolution Institute’s infatuation with Darwinian “explanations” for knowledge in nature are a feint to evade what atheists perpetually evade: knowledge in nature presupposes a Knower. 

Photo: Mural portrait of Charles Darwin, Sidney Street, Sheffield cc-by-sa/2.0 © Neil Theasby via Geograph.