Universal Selection

Natural selection

Most people are familiar with the idea of natural selection. Some things survive better than others - and the world which observers witness is populated by the things that are good at surviving. The idea is sometimes known as "survival of the fittest".

Beyond biology

However, many people associate this idea with life - and with living systems. What is less-commonly understood is that the principle of natural selection is a broad and deep one, which also applies to systems which are not alive.

Natural selection affects everything that comes into existence. Whether or not it comes into existence via a copying process is irrelevant.


For example, when you see the pebbles on a beach, the ones you see will mostly be hard ones - which are made of materials which are difficult to erode. This is because softer and more fragile stones have already been been pounded into sand - and have sunk to the bottom.

Also: clouds often appear to be white, light and fluffy because natural selection has already dragged any heavy water droplets out of them, and fine water vapor particles are usually all that is left.

The principle of natural selection is not confined to living systems. Its effects can be seen in action everywhere. So:

  • When observes look at the sky, they see the stars that are shining - and not the ones that have previously burned out or exploded;

  • The elementary particles that are observed in the universe tend to be the stable ones - the ones with long half-lives;

  • The tops of mountains tend to be covered in hard rocks that resist erosion - since any soft rocks there tend to get washed away;

  • The meteorites, comets and satellites observed in orbit are the ones that have not yet crashed into any planets or stars.


I am not aware of an existing term for this idea - and so I think it needs christening. I think the most obvious terms for the idea are " pan-selectionism" and "universal selection". Both terms are already currently being used in different contexts:

  • "Pan-selectionism" is used as a derogatory term - which means more-or-less the same thing as "pan-adaptationism" - a term used to refer to the idea that evolution is driven almost exclusively by natural selection, and that all features of organisms have an adaptive explanation;

  • "Universal selection" has been used mainly to refer to the ideas about cultural evolution in Gary Cziko's book, Without Miracles.

I think "universal selection" is the best term for the idea. I think this idea has a better claim on the title that is represented by the ideas in Without Miracles - so I think the best thing to do is to simply to adopt usage of the term.

The term "selection" has been criticised for falsely implying a selector - and for falsely implying a choice beween discrete and disjoint alternatives. "Filtering" or "sorting" would probably be a more accurate literal description of what happens to the persistent patterns - though even those terms are not quite right. However, the term "selection" is already used ubiquitously in this context - so: my current assessment is that fighting against that terminology is a batttle that was lost some time ago.

Darwinian dynamics

The idea of Universal Selection can be classified as belonging with other ideas about self-organising systems - which is an area associated with maths and physics.

If evolution can be thought of as consiting of reproduction, variation and selection, then only reproduction is confined to living systems - both variation and selection occur in non-living ones. That means that we can expect to see some Darwinian dynamics exhibited in non-living systems. Indeed, that is what we see - many self-organising systems that are not alive nontheless exhibit some of the qualities normally associated with living systems - such as the ability to maintain homeostasis in the face of environmental perturbances.


Self-organising systems is an area which is currently represented poorly within the eduction system - and "Universal Selection" is a poorly-recognised idea in the field. As a result of these factors, many people are not aware of the concept.

Natural selection is currently taught in biology classes. It should probably be taught in physics classes. It is a fairly basic principle, broadly similar to the laws of thermodynamics. Natural selection in biology is best understood as a special case of this much more general and fundamental principle.



  • Lotka, Alfred J., 1922 - Natural Selection As A Physical Principle, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 8: 151-154 [full paper downloadable from here]
  • Weber, Bruce H. and Depew, David J., Natural selection and self-organization

  • Tim Tyler | Contact