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 Charles Darwin’s theory of “descent with modification” beyond its original application to biological organisms. This theory is most often identified as a theory of “evolution”:
  • Evolution (1620s) – any process by which an organic form changes in response to situational conditions. The notion is based on the metaphor of “an opening of what was rolled up” (i.e., a scroll or book), and it was originally used in medicine and mathematics. It was first used to refer to living forms in the 1660s to describe the growth and development of individual organisms. The metaphor was extended to geological forms in the 1830s and to biological species in the last half of the 1800s. (Charles Darwin used the word only once in his writings, having preferred the phrase “descent with modification.”) Associated processes include:
    • Ontogenesis (Ontogeny) – the organic growth of an organism – that is, the biological events that unfold as an organism develops and matures
    • Phylogenesis (Phylogeny) – the evolutionary unfolding of a species. Phylogenesis is often coupled with and contrasted to Ontogenesis.
Universal Darwinism is motivated by the conviction that the dynamics identified by Darwin, of 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,” “systemic adaptation,” and “systemic evolution” can be understood as synonyms. Illustrative constructs include:
  • Cross-Adaptation – a type of physiological Learning Transfer by which a learning/adaptation developed to respond to one set of environmental stressors is applied with positive effect in a novel (and, often, very different) situation
  • Cross-Enhancement – the use of one stimulus to prompt an amplification of one’s ability to perceive multiple and fine-grained qualities of a quite-different stimulus
  • Epigenetics – the study of changes that can affect gene expression – that is, inheritance – that don’t involve changes to DNA sequence. The matter rose to interest among educators in the 2000s, especially around the notion of Mindset, in the realization that over-deterministic interpretations of “genetics” (as pertaining to learner traits and potentials) were at play in the field. Associated constructs include:
    • Epigenetic Landscape (Conrad Hall Waddington, 1960s) – a visual metaphor in which development is likened to the motions of balls down a slope with many troughs, intended to illustrate the notion that differentiations during development are influenced by both genetics and experiencescreen shot 2022 10 19 at 8.22.55 am
  • Evolvability – a descriptive term, referring to the extent to which a system can evolve. Evolvability was originally applied to biological systems – that is, to the extent to which a species capacity to generate adaptive diversity might be incorporated in its genome. More recently, the notion has been extended to applications such as Evolutionary Robotics(see above) – that is, the extent to which systems might be designed to adapt continuously and creatively to changing circumstances and mounting complexity.
  • Evolved Psychological Mechanism – a psychological adaptation that evolved to meet a specific need or serve a specific purpose. More colloquially, an Evolved Psychological Mechanism is a learning that happens at the level of the species and that is “remembered” genetically.
  • Exaptation (Co-Option) (Stephen J. Gould, 1980s) – the extension or hijacking of an evolved function for another purpose. For example, the human larynx is theorized to have evolved to enhance capacities to call and to warn, and it was later co-opted for speech.
  • Phase Space – the collective of all possible happenings/unfoldings/outcomes/actions of a system. If that system is a living, learning, evolving form and/or if the system occupies an evolving context, its Phase Space will also be an evolving form. That is, as the system and/or is situation learns/evolves, its horizon of possibility shifts.
  • Physiological Adaptation – any intracellular, biochemical, and/or metabolic shifts in an organism’s body that enables it to exist more effectively in an environment. More colloquially, a Physiological Adaptation is a learning that is “remembered” in one’s physical structure.
  • Psychological Adaptation – a cognitive or behavioral shift/adaptation that enables an organism to exist more effectively in an environment
  • Sensory Adaptation (Neural Adaptation) – a decreased sensitivity to a stimulus, due principally to frequent or constant exposure to it
Importantly, there are conflicting perspectives on the core dynamics of evolution. Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest are most commonly invoked, but Natural Drift and Survival of the Fit have more recently emerged as perhaps better descriptions of biological evolution and almost certainly more applicable within discussions of “learning as evolution” (that is, among Coherence Discourses):
  • Darwinism (Charles Darwin, 1850s) – mechanisms proposed by Darwin for the transformation of forms over time (including the evolutions as species, meanings, and customs) and increases in diversity and complexity (e.g., within an ecosystem, social collective, or culture). It is important to note that, although Darwinian or evolutionary processes are often assumed to be directional (e.g., from lower to higher, simpler to more complex, or worse to better), Darwin’s theory did not propose a direction, merely mechanisms for transformation and diversification.
  • Lamarckism (Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics; Use-and-Disuse Theory) (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, 1790s) – a perspective on evolution founded on the suggestion that offspring can inherit traits that its parents developed (through use or disuse) during their lifetimes. While once wholly rejected, recent research in Epigenetics (see above) have demonstrated some merit to Lamarkism.
  • Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest
    • Natural Selection (Charles Darwin, 1850s) –the collection of processes that determine whether organisms/species survive or are eliminated (e.g., disease, predators, etc.). In Darwinian evolution, Natural Selection is seen as the principal dynamic in the emergence and extinction of species.
    • Survival of the Fittest (Herbert Spencer, 1860s) – the suggestion that those organisms/species that are better adapted to a specific environment will be more successful than competitors at surviving and reproducing
  • Natural Drift and Survival of the Fit
    • Natural Drift (Francisco Varela, 1980s) – a rejection of the suggestion that evolution has a “trajectory” or “direction,” in the sense of moving from less-complicated to more-complicated forms. Natural Drift suggests that evolution is a constant unfolding of novel possibility.
    • Survival of the Fit (Francisco Varela, 1980s, who attributed it to Charles Darwin) – the suggest that “adequacy” rather than “optimality” is the necessary quality for survival of an organism/species. That is, the suggestion that evolution is more a matter of emergent possibility rooted in complex co-activity than linear progress based on competition.
Many discourses have emerged that claim to embrace evolutionary dynamics, but that assume ends-driven dynamics and/or interventions by divine agents. Examples include:
  • Intelligent Design (Nick Matzke, 1980s) – an attempt to explain life and other features of the universe by appealing to a higher power that created natural laws, oversees evolution, and intervenes miraculously
  • Orthogenesis (Evolutionary Progress; Orthogenetic Evolution; Progressionism; Progressive Evolution) – a version of evolutionary theory based on the assumption that organisms are innately driven to evolve in a predetermined direction
  • Theistic Evolution (Evolutionary Creationism; God-Guided Evolution) – a version of evolutionary theory based on the assumption that a god created the laws of nature, which in turn drive evolution according to a predetermined purpose (See Theism, under Mysticism- & Religion-Aligned Discourses.)
Such discourses are deprecatingly described as “teleological,” whereas Universal Darwinism is “teleonomic”:
  • Teleology – the belief that natural evolutionary processes are purpose-driven or goal-directed. The word is derived from the Greek telos- “end, goal, purpose” + -logia “speak, tell.”
  • Teleonomy (Colin Pittendrigh, 1950s) – the recognition that natural evolutionary processes can appear to be (but are not) purpose-driven or goal-directed. The word is derived from the Greek telos- “end, goal, purpose” + nomos “law.”
Some specific examples of Universal Darwinism relevant education include the following:
  • Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Evo-Devo) – a branch of biology focused on the emergence (i.e., the evolutionary history) of the developmental processes of different species
  • 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
  • Neural Darwinism (Neuronal Group Selection; Selectionist Brain Theory) (Gerald Edelman, 1980s) – an evolution-based account of brain development that uses Darwinian dynamics to make sense of the growth, interactions,signaling, and linkings of synapses, neurons, neuronal clusters, etc.
  • Paleopsychology – the speculative examination of psychological processes currently manifested by humans that are thought to have emerged in earlier stages of human or pre-human evolution
  • 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.
  • Punctuated Equilibrium (Stephen J. Gould, 1980s) – originally, a model of biological evolution that cast the process in terms of occasional periods of rapid change rather than a continuous process of minor changes. The notion has been picked up by some psychologists and educators, especially those who align strongly with Developmental Discourses, to characterize individuals’ and groups’ shifts in knowing and consciousness (see, e.g., Gersick's Punctuated Equilibrium Model, under Group Development Theories.)
Other instances and applications of Universal Darwinism can be found under the following entries:


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. Specific examples if misinterpretation and misapplication of Darwinism include:
  • Political Genetics – an umbrella category that reaches across perspectives that purport to translate the physical sciences of genetics and evolution into social and political theories. Examples include:
    • Beyondism (Raymond Cattell, 1980s) – an attempt to derive a “religion from science,” founded on the premise that evolutionary competition, if unhindered, will solve the world’s problems – acknowledging that some civilizations will thrive and others will perish in the process
    • Eugenics (Ectogenesis) (Francis Galton, 1880s) – a social and political perspective aimed at ridding humanity of genetic defects through selective breeding of those with deemed-to-be-superior traits and preventing reproduction of those with deemed-to-be-undesirable traits
    • Social Darwinism (Herbert Spencer, 1800s) – a social theory structured around the principle of “survival of the fittest,” by which evolutionary advancement was assumed to unfold through those judged as superior – on the basis, e.g., of class, wealth, and race

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.


  • Beyondism
  • Biocultural Evolution
  • Cross-Adaptation
  • Cross-Enhancement
  • Darwinism
  • Epigenetic Landscape
  • Epigenetics
  • Eugenics (Ectogenesis)
  • Evolution
  • Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Evo-Devo)
  • Evolutionary Developmental Psychology
  • Evolutionary Educational Psychology
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Evolvability
  • Evolved Psychological Mechanism
  • Exaptation (Co-Option)
  • Intelligent Design
  • Lamarckism (Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics; Use-and-Disuse Theory)
  • Natural Drift
  • Natural Selection
  • Neural Darwinism (Neuronal Group Selection; Selectionist Brain Theory)
  • Ontogenesis (Ontogeny)
  • Orthogenesis (Evolutionary Progress; Orthogenetic Evoluution; Progressionism; Progressive Evolution)
  • Paleopsychology
  • Phase Space
  • Phylogenesis (Phylogeny)
  • Physiological Adaptation
  • Political Genetics
  • Population Learning
  • Psychological Adaptation
  • Punctuated Equilibrium
  • Sensory Adaptation (Neural Adaptation)
  • Social Darwinism
  • Survival of the Fit
  • Survival of the Fittest
  • Teleology
  • Teleonomy
  • Theistic Evolution (Evolutionary Creationism; God-Guided Evolution)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Universal Darwinism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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