So,What is Holistic Darwinism?

It may sound like an oxymoron to anyone who associates “Darwinism” with biologist Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene,” or with poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s carnivorous image – “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Indeed, neo-Darwinism, the reigning paradigm in evolutionary biology for the past three decades, promotes an image of “ruthless” individual competition as the essence of Darwinian evolution. (Neo-Darwinism was based most especially on the early theoretical work of George Williams and William Hamilton, who later modified their views, not on Dawkins’ popularizations.)

But Holistic Darwinism is not an oxymoron. It’s a candidate name for a major paradigm shift that has been going on in evolutionary biology (and related fields) during the past several years. It is a way of characterizing the evolutionary implications of several convergent theoretical developments, all of which are focused on, or related to, the evolution of organized complexity in living organisms (which is one of their most salient features, after all) as well as, equally important, our ever-broadening understanding of the multiple, and multi-leveled sources of causation in the natural world. In fact, the emerging new paradigm is closer to Darwin’s Darwinism (he’s often been slurred) than to the hard-edged, cutthroat, individualistic model that the neo-Darwinians have purveyed. Some of these recent developments, or trends, include the following:

  • A growing respect for the fact that evolution, and natural selection, occurs at multiple levels, from genes to ecosystems.
  • A revitalization of group selection theory, which implies a major role for cooperative phenomena.
  • A realization that “symbiogenesis” (the emergence of symbiotic partnerships) has played an important role in the evolution of complexity (our eukaryotic cells being perhaps the most stunning example).
  • Advances in game theory, which have provided the theoretical basis for a much more balanced view of evolution as a dualistic process in which cooperation shares the stage with competition.
  • The rise of “genomics” and “systems biology” which are focused on the systemic properties, and processes, in living systems.
  • An outpouring of research and theoretical work on the role of developmental dynamics, “phenotypic plasticity” and organism-environment interactions as shaping influences in evolutionary continuities and changes.
  • A flood of publications on the role of behavior, social learning and cultural transmission as “pacemakers” of evolutionary change.
  • And last, but not least, a broad, “bioeconomic” theory of complexity in evolution that I first proposed in The Synergism Hypothesis (McGraw-Hill, 1983), a theory that is fully consistent with Darwin’s theory (rather than positing some “law” of evolution), has finally gained some recognition. (For details, see my website:

There’s more, but the combined effect of this explosion of exciting theoretical and research work is the growing need for a new way of viewing the evolutionary process. Some theorists have suggested replacing the selfish gene image with the “cooperative gene” (the title of a 1996 journal article of mine and a more recent book by biologist Mark Ridley). But this label is equally one-sided and downplays the undeniable importance of competition in nature, and human societies. But more important, the emerging new paradigm is focused on a different set of questions: How have “wholes” evolved over time? How do they work, and what is their significance in evolution? Indeed, the new paradigm is more about competition via cooperation than some conflict between them. Thus, I have proposed that we use the term “Holistic Darwinism.” (It’s also the title of my book, Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics and the Bioeconomics of Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

Category: Evolution