Degenerative Darwinism


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a video about Degenerative Darwinism - a term used to describe Darwinian processes which are too limited to result in cumulative adaptive evolution.


Copying is the essence of living systems. Indeed, life can be effectively defined as being: that which persists via copying.

However, not all copying has sufficient fidelity to support cumulative adaptive evolution. To give a couple of examples:

  • Humans regularly produce low-fidelity copies when they make a photocopy of a photocopy. Such copies don't usually form chains of indefinite length or undergo cumulative adaptive evolution.

  • Existing organic creatures can encounter mutagenic environments which cause them to suffer from reduced copying fidelity in their genomes, exhibit devolution - and eventually fall into an extinction vortex.

Conventionally Darwinian evolution requires copying, variation and selection. These processes are all ubiquitous in nature - as we will now see:

Universal copying

Copying is not a phenomenon which is confined to the realm of complex biological entities. In fact, many simple and inanimate natural systems also exhibit copying processes. For example:

  • Fractures - Here, a source signal is copied many times and information about the timing and location of the it hit radiates outwards from the point of impact.

    Fractures illustrate natural copying.

  • Waves - Here, an examination of adjacent sections of sand dune shows that informnation relating to orientation and spacing is copied from place to place by the action of the wind. A similar phenomenon produces regularities in ocean waves.

    Sand dunes illustrate low-fidelity copying.

  • Erosion - In eroded landscapes if you look at adjacent streams, their directions are found to be correlated - showing that copying has taken place.

    Fractal drainage systems exhibit copying.

  • Radiation - The sun broadcasts its location directly in all directions. The moon spread copies of information about its location too - using reflected light. Gravity waves propagate information about the location of all material objects. Electromagnetic waves propagate information about electrical and magnetic fields. Sound waves spread copies of information about vibrations in all directions.

    Gravity and light waves radiate from the moon

  • Flames - The radial spread of fire propagates information about the time and location of the source of the fire as it goes.

    Here, a grass fire spreads radially.

  • Diffusion-limited aggregation creates "frost flowers" on this window. Here, copying takes place at the tips of the branches as they grow.

    Frost flowers show imprecise copying.

  • Ripples - Here, a source signal is copied many times and information about the timing and location of disturbance radiates outwards from the point of impact.

    Ripples illustrate natural copying.

  • Crystals - In a snowflake, information about the orientation of a seed crystal is propagated pretty reliably in six directions.

    Snowflakes show how good natural copying can be.

Information is also copied in many other natural systems - including whirlpools, landslides, lighning, explosions, and tornadoes.

Universal variation

Copying is rarely perfect. In many of natural systems that involve copying, you can see that the copied information is subject to distortions and changes as it is transmitted. Noise is everwhere - and so is natural variation.

Universal selection

Another ubiquitous process in nature is the loss of information. Some things still last longer that others - and this is still true even if they are not alive. There is a law of survival of the stable of which natural selection in biology is a special case. My pages on universal selection and NanoDarwinism have a lot more details about this idea.

Universal Darwinism

Copying, variation and selection are all ubiquitous processes in nature - and these are the basic pre-requisites for Darwinian evolution.

However, many of the systems listed above no not have sufficiently high copying fidelity to support cumulative adaptive evolution. Some of these systems also limit the quantity of information copied - or they limit how many times the information can be copied in series.

Nonetheless with copying, variation and selection, Darwin's theory of evolution is a natural fit for modeling the dynamics of these kinds of systems. The most common term for this kind of broad application of evolutionary theory is Universal Darwinism. Use of the term "universal" is justified - in part - by the types of process described on this page.

Degenerative Darwinism

I've previously proposed that the term NanoDarwinism is used to describe a cut-down version of Darwinism without copying processes. The kind of Darwinism described here - which does have copying but still lacks much in the way of cumulative adaptative evolution - is probably best described as being Degenerative Darwinism.

The basic idea behind applying a Darwinian framework to systems which exhibit copying but are unable to support cumulative adaptative evolution is to be able to build accurate models of their dynamics - and to properly understand how they work. If a system exhibits copying, variation and selection, you have to use a model which includes those elements - if you are trying to predict how it will behave.

Another virtue of using Darwinism is that a single simple framework unites a range of diverse phenomena. Insights into the dynamics of one system may thus illuminate other systems which exhibit similar Darwinian dynamics.


Although they might not be able to develop much in the way of cumulative adaptations and complexity on a biological scale, such systems can still exhibit basic forms of adaptation. In fact, most complex adaptive systems exhibit at least this degenerative form of Darwinism. The copying and selection which are involved are part of the explanation of why they behave in an adaptive manner. Crystals, whirlpools and glass fractures are all capable of adapting to their environment. A familiar case involves the electrical discharge paths inside plasma balls - which adapt dynamically to the pattern of electrical resistance on the outside of the ball. The reason for these kinds of adaptive behaviour comes down to the Darwinian dynamics they exhibit.

Plasma ball electrical discharges adapt dynamically.

Degenerative Darwinism is part of the theory of Universal Darwinism. It is an important idea - if you want to understand how the world works. The idea currently appears to be an under-appreciated one. Please help to spread the word about it.



Tim Tyler | Contact |