Universal Darwinism

Dawkins, Richard. “Universal Darwinism.” Philosophy of Biology eds. Hull & Ruse, London: Oxford, 1998

Basic point of this paper is to argue that darwinism is approximately a universal maxim. In other words, it will work well anywhere. Dawkins reviews seven different evolution theories, points out their strengths and weaknesses in order to show that indeed darwinism is the best.

Defining complexity

“Complexity is a statistical concept…A complex thing is a statistically improbable thing, something with a very low a priori likelihood of coming into being” (16).

“Living things are not just statistically improbably in the trivial sense of hindsight: theory statistical improbability is limited by the a priori constraints of design. They are adaptively complex” (17).

Certainly there is some problem with this definition. The problem for me comes with the comparison of human artifacts with living entities. What I mean to say is that complexity should be a statement of how a thing comes into being as much as a statement of the current organization. Earlier in this essay, Dawkins refers to Paley’s watch argument. That argument goes something like this: “if you find a watch on the beach, the complexity of if demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that it was designed by and intelligent agent.” Though a living entity may be as structurally complex as a watch, it is the way in which it is formed that makes it “adaptive.” A watch is not adaptive, it cannot change itself. A living entity grows. It develops from a bottom-up process whereas a watch is constructed from a top-down process. Stark contrast here.

Theory 1: Vitalism. Living entities have within them a drive which motivates them toward progressive goodness or perfection. This idea is disregarded with little fanfare. Dawkins says that this theory does not explain anything.

It’s kind of a shame that he dismisses this theory so quickly. Not that I think it holds much water, it is just that this notion is so pervasive in culture, language etc that it deserves a bit more attention.

Theory 2: Lamarcksim. This is the theory that giraffes got long necks by trying to eat the leaves on high trees. It somehow stretches and this stretched neck is passed on to the next generation. This theory is sometimes referred to as the use/disuse theory.


1. Only works in some cases, such as muscles and not others (giraffe’s neck).

2. Changes are not always an improvement (if a parent is injured, this theory would suggest that the injury would be passed on).

3. Doesn’t explain why beneficial traits culminate, natural selection is still necessary

“The Lamarckian theory, on the other hand, relies on a much cruder coupling: the rule that the more an animal uses a certain bit of itself, the bigger that bit ought to be. The rule occasionally might have some validity, but not generally, and as a sculptor of adaptation, it is a blunt hatche in comparison to the fine chisel of natural selection” (19)

“If you have a complex and reasonably well-adapted system, the number of things you can do to it that will make it perform less well is vastly greater than the number of things you can do to it that will improve it” (20).

I seem to think that Dawkins has much too rosy a picture of natural selection. On the one hand, he explains it in terms of a chisel and on the other hand portrays it as being so fragile. Well I guess this is a consistent metaphor, but to me, that ns produces such vulnerable entities is a mark against it, not for it.

Theory 3: Environmental Imprint. This is to say that organisms take on the shape, color, or whatever directly from their habitat. The example is a frog that has the same coloration of the long grass in which it lives.


1. the environmental info must get into genetic form in order to be passed on, this theory does not account for this.

2. How does the organism get rid of problematic traits.

3. Can only work if embryology is perforministic (not sure what this means, something to do with reversibility)

Theory 4: Saltationism. A sudden appearance of a fully formed complex entity.


1. Too much like magic

2. Doesn’t actually explain how it came to be

3. Confuses with punctuated equilibrium

4. Confuses 747 and dc8 (there can be big changes is magnitude but not in major information)

“whenever in the universe adaptive complexity shall be found, it will have come into being gradually through a series of small alteration, never through large and sudden increments in adaptive complexity” (24).

I disagree with this and partly because I find there to be a problem with the definition of “adaptive complexity.” I do not think that there is such thing as magic or anything other than what is in the natural world; however, certainly, theories such as complexity and dynamic systems theory have shown that at certain tipping points, major newness, novelty, levels of complexity, or whatever you want to call it appear. This of course is not the same as a 747 appearing in from the junkyard, but nonetheless, it might count as a saltation of sorts. At least it might look like a saltation. I think that if emergence was considered and explained appropriately, it would actually strengthen Dawkins arguments against magical saltation.

Theory 5: Random Evolution. This is the notion that mutation is the true evolutionary force and selection merely weeds out the bad apples, so to speak.


1. Contradicts most of the evidence of natural selection so far.

2. Mutations have to be directed to account for any degree of adaptability thus far.

Theory 6: Direction (order) imposed on Random Variation by Natural Selection. Darwinism. Works every time, and probably everywhere (says Dawkins). It contains replicators (genes), phenotypic controls, causal process, and cumulative selection gets adaptive complexity.

“Darwin’s theory is falsifiable, but he was much too wise to make his theory that easy to falsify!” (29).

I wonder what type of information could falsify Darwinism?

One thought on “Universal Darwinism

  1. hey there,

    you’ve not incl the 7th theory here?

    seems to me, of course i’ve not read what you have, that evolution is a movement of life forces utilizing some of most of the theories above. not one of these theories, in brief, seem to be holistic in there approach. very black & white. single statement applied, type thing. speaking of complexity, the world is quite so, and therefore, shouldn’t be defined in a single statement. though i understand the scientific world needs to quantify the validity of every ‘fact’ or sentence.

    an example of very narrow in scope…
    in problem 2 of theory 2
    “Changes are not always an improvement (if a parent is injured, this theory would suggest that the injury would be passed on).”

    i don’t think i understand this jump in thinking. if one giraffe developed an unusual long neck then that would allow him to survive a drought longer, perhaps long enough to mate. being one of those that have survived, has passed on his genes. females may recognise this trait, or not. it may become a thing of beauty, or not. simple fact is he survived. & was better fed. therefore a more healthy mate. stronger mate. how he got his long neck would be a combination of factors: toiling with those out of reach branches day after day, stretching & developing longer muscles; also it would be biological that he was more flexible than the next guy & had a bit a longer neck like some of us have longer noses.

    i’m sure i could incl more here if i had more time to think about it. though i suppose you’ve thought of all this or have read about everything i’ve mentioned before. hard to be original these days. though it’s fun trying to wrap my head around this stuff, & write something linear & coherent.

    the concept of magic & tarot is something we should get into sometime. as with evolution, there are many definitions of the esoteric that do not have disney-esque elements.

    btw, do you know about NewsGator???

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