Universal Darwinism


Darwinian Metaphysics
Generalized Darwinism
Universal Selection Theory


Adaptive dynamics by which systems maintain viability

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … vibrant, viable complex forms/systems
  • Knowing is … surviving
  • Learner is … a vibrant, adaptive phenomenon
  • Learning is … adapting; viability-maintaining
  • Teaching is … occasioning; co-evolving




Universal Darwinism encompasses every extension of Darwin’s theory of evolution beyond its original application to biological organisms. Universal Darwinism is motivated by the conviction that such dynamics as variation, selection, and retention can be applied to other patterns. phenomena, and systems – such as those studied in psychology, sociology, medicine, computer science, and geology. Within education, virtually all Coherence Discourses invoke evolutionary dynamics. Some, such as Enactivism and Complex Systems Research, assert that “learning” and “biological evolution” are instances of the same phenomenon, merely applied at different levels of organization. That is, “systemic learning” and “systemic evolution” can be understood as synonyms. Some specific examples of Universal Darwinism relevant education include the following:
  • Biocultural Evolution – See Dual Inheritance Theory
  • Evolutionary Developmental Psychology (David Bjorklund, 2000s) – applying evolutionary principles to understand genetic and environmental mechanisms involved in the development of cognitive and social competencies
  • Evolutionary Educational Psychology – the study of how people are affected by and how they manage gaps between folk knowledge and academic knowledge
  • Evolutionary Psychology – applying evolutionary principles in the study of human behavior and cognition, concerned largely with adaptations that arise when one deals with evolving circumstances and new intellectual challenges
  • Participant Evolution – the process of using technology to redesign the human form
  • Population Learning – Based on the principle that “evolution is learning that occurs at the level of the species,” Population Learning refers to those processes by which a species (or co-entangled group of species, or population of organisms) learns/evolves genetically through iterative processes of reproduction and selection.
  • Repeated Learning (P. Strimling, 2000s) – Contrasted with Population Learning (see above), by which one acquires a trait/information by virtue of being a member of a species (that is, such learning/evolution occurs only once, at the level of the species), Repeated Learning applies to the learning of an aspect of culture, which must be learned repeatedly (that is, it must be learned by each member of the culture individually).
  • Social Evolution – subdiscipline of both evolutionary biology and sociology, focused on social behaviors and the evolution of social systems
  • Sociocultural Evolution (Sociocultural Evolutionism; Cultural Evolution) - theories describing how societies and cultures change over time


Most criticisms of Universal Darwinism come from outside of scientific domains, and they typically boil down to a rejection of evolutionary theory – usually because this robust scientific theory is incompatible with particular religious convictions or disruptive of desires for a stable and fully explainable reality. Some criticisms reach back to misinterpretations and misapplications of Darwinism (e.g., Social Darwinism, used to justify social inequality a century ago). Still other criticisms are articulated as worries of over-enthusiastic and under-justified extensions of a biology-based theory onto non-biological domains. Curiously few criticisms seem to be associated with an awareness that evolutionary theorizing about psychological, social, and cultural phenomena preceded Darwin.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Charles Darwin; Richard Dawkins

Status as a Theory of Learning

Universal Darwinism is can be readily interpreted as a theory of learning if “systemic learning” and “systemic evolution” are interpreted as synonyms. Through the robust scientific offerings of such offerings as Genetic Epistemology and Enactivism – as well as the fact that evolutionary dynamics are assumed in all Eco-Complexity Discourses – there are grounds to assert that Universal Darwinism is a theory that reaches across all learning phenomena.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Universal Darwinism is not in any way a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The scientific theory of evolution is one of the most robustly argued and thoroughly researched subdomains in modern science. Many of the extrapolations of evolutionary dynamics onto other phenomena cannot claim the same rigor. For most of the theories of learning associated with Universal Darwinism, there is substantial, phenomenon-specific evidence.


  • Biocultural Evolution
  • Evolutionary Developmental Psychology
  • Evolutionary Educational Psychology
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Participant Evolution
  • Population Learning
  • Repeated Learning
  • Social Evolution
  • Sociocultural Evolution

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Universal Darwinism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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