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What's love got to do with it?

or "An antidote to Universal Darwinism"
or "A scientific worldview where self-interest is NOT the prime mover"

The theory of evolution by natural selection, its role in supporting the dominant Western worldview, and why an alternative scientific theory matters.

The prevailing scientific (traditionally Western) worldview sees self-interest and competition as natural and logical. 'Natural' because it is supported by evolutionary theory ("survival of the fittest") and 'logical' because it is supported by rational individualism ("the only logical action for me is to do what’s best for me"). This worldview creates isolation, greed and unsustainable exploitation that is harmful to us as individuals, harmful to us as a society and global community, and harmful to other living things and the biosphere. But what to do? If working together requires that we are perpetually swimming against the current - fighting what is natural and logical - what hope is there? Maybe we should just give-in to selfishness - isolate ourselves and stop caring...

On the other hand, a different worldview (familiar within Eastern ‘Wisdom traditions’) sees a larger tapestry of living things. A ‘harmonious web of life’ if you like. In this view, there is no aim to 'win' or out-compete others – only to find harmony with nature, to live with ease and balance, playing a humble role within the greater whole. With this worldview, cooperation, synergy and working together is natural and wise. For some, this sits well with a personal conviction that 'nature is beautiful', ‘humility is wiser than power’, 'love is the way', and such like. Under a view of the world where all living things play a role in something bigger than ourselves, and cannot be separate from it, it makes sense to surrender ego, cultivate an attitude of gratitude to one another and the planet, and act with humility and compassion toward one another.

But that’s just mumbo jumbo, isn’t it; according to the dominant narrative within much of scientific thought, there is no basis for the idea that life around us is organised in a way that supports any holistic functional organisation. Natural selection is the only known mechanism capable of producing adaptive complexity – and it has been argued quite convincingly that it is the only possible mechanism of adaptation in the natural universe (hence Universal Darwinism). It does not apply to systems like ecosystems or the biosphere or societies because they are not evolutionary units (they do not reproduce). Above the scale of individual organisms it is competition, not harmony, that is the ‘prime mover’. So, whilst ecosystems might certainly be complicated, and sometimes cooperating with others might be to your advantage, basically – its a jungle out there.


However, natural selection is not the only naturally occurring mechanism that can produce adaptive complexity. There is a different adaptive process that occurs spontaneously in systems with suitable properties. Natural Induction works through a different principle; not differential survival and reproduction of entities (competition) but the differential easing of relationships between entities (see publications). It therefore operates in systems that are outside the limitations of natural selection. It is not magical or mystical. It does not suggest that all natural systems are harmonious or adaptively organised – this depends on the extent to which they meet the necessary conditions. But it does suggest a different value system – one based not on competitive exclusion, but on the distributed knowledge in the system, stored in the induced organisation of the connections. It is also a view that focuses, not on separating things-to-retain from things-to-discard, but on how one part of a system takes on meaning through the organisation of its relationships with other parts.


When we form relationships with others (evolutionarily or personally) our future options are changed, with the consequence that sometimes we are caused to do something that ‘we don’t want to do’. Our work shows that when these relationships are formed slowly over many experiences, as they are in nature, the organisation of these relationships has a wisdom greater than the parts. The new options they present cause self-interested individuals to act in better alignment with collective interest. A word people sometimes use for relationships that cause us to serve something other than ourselves is love. Not the sentimental or brain-chemistry kind; the kind that does real work – the kind that makes us part of something greater than we are as individuals.

This offers a scientific framework that naturalises an incentive to ask ‘What do we know of each other?’ rather than ‘What’s in it for me?’. And perhaps alleviates an eagerness to exploit one another and the planet.

My recent work (Songs of Life and Mind) seeks to make room for agential (top-down) explanations in biology and evolution - which requires quite a lot of re-framing and a lot of technical work to escape reducitonist framings that cannot see agents. 

  • Lent, J. (2021) The Web of Meaning, Profile Books.

  • Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford.

  • Dawkins, R. (1983). “Universal Darwinism”. in Evolution from molecules to men, 403-425.

  • Hayek, F. A. (1980). Individualism and economic order. University of chicago Press.

  • Watson, R.A. & Buckley, C.L. (forthcoming) “Natural Induction”, manuscript in prep.

  • Watson, R.A., Levin, M. & Buckley C.L. (2022)"Design for an Individual: Connectionist Approaches to the Evolutionary Transitions in
    Individuality", Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.823588)

  • Watson, R.A. & Lewens, T. (forthcoming) “Evolution by Natural Induction”, manuscript in prep.

  • Watson, R.A. & Levin, M. (forthcoming) “The Collective Intelligence of Evolution”, under submission.

  • Watson, R. A., & Szathmáry, E. (2016). How can evolution learn?. Trends in ecology & evolution, 31(2), 147-157.

  • Power, D. A., et al. (2015). What can ecosystems learn? Expanding evolutionary ecology with learning theory. Biology direct, 10(1), 1-24.

  • Watson, R. A., Mills, R., & Buckley, C. L. (2011). Global adaptation in networks of selfish components. Artificial Life, 17(3), 147-166.

  • Davies, A. P., et.. al (2011). “If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with”: How individual habituation of agent interactions improves global utility. Artificial Life, 17(3), 167-181.

  • Watson, R. A., Buckley, C. L., & Mills, R. (2011). Optimization in “self‐modeling” complex adaptive systems. Complexity, 16(5), 17-26.


For more on worldviews, their impact, historical context and alternatives see Jeremey Lent

An antidote to Universal Darwinism:
Natural Induction and worldviews 

Adaptation by Natural Induction.jpg
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let's connect

I would like, together with you, to explore what contribution we can make to bringing science types and compassionate types closer to a shared worldview. If you would like to know more please get in touch...

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