An evolutionary process without variation and selection

Liane Gabora, Mike Steel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Natural selection successfully explains how organisms accumulate adaptive change despite that traits acquired over a lifetime are eliminated at the end of each generation. However, in some domains that exhibit cumulative, adaptive change - e.g. cultural evolution, and earliest life - acquired traits are retained; these domains do not face the problem that Darwin's theory was designed to solve. Lack of transmission of acquired traits occurs when germ cells are protected from environmental change, due to a self-assembly code used in two distinct ways: (i) actively interpreted during development to generate a soma, and (ii) passively copied without interpretation during reproduction to generate germ cells. Early life and cultural evolution appear not to involve a self-assembly code used in these two ways. We suggest that cumulative, adaptive change in these domains is due to a lower-fidelity evolutionary process, and model it using reflexively autocatalytic and foodset-generated networks. We refer to this more primitive evolutionary process as self-other reorganization (SOR) because it involves internal self-organizing and self-maintaining processes within entities, as well as interaction between entities. SOR encompasses learning but in general operates across groups. We discuss the relationship between SOR and Lamarckism, and illustrate a special case of SOR without variation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20210334
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number180
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data accessibility. This article has no additional data. Authors’ contributions. Both authors wrote the paper. L.G. came up with the core idea. M.S. provided most of the mathematics. Competing interests. We declare we have no competing interests. Funding. This research was funded by grant no. 62R06523 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Acknowledgements. We thank the editor and reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions on the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Royal Society Publishing. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • autocatalytic network
  • cultural evolution
  • evolution
  • origin of life
  • social learning


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