Wiley, R. H.   2020.   Natural selection.   In: Shackelford, T., amd V. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science.   Springer International Publishing, Cham.   [12 pages]  


Every organism develops from a particular plan in a particular environment. It persists as long as its immediate structure can harvest exogenous energy to counteract entropy. Each organism eventually decays. Yet, provided an organism transmits its original plan to nascent progeny, a similar organism in a similar environment can develop anew.

Provided organisms transmit their plans to progeny with some appropriate level of variability, natural selection can yield a lineage of organisms that persists indefinitely in an environment of complex changes. Organisms with adaptations for learning can improve their survival in environments with short-term variation. These adaptations can extend even to learning the principles of natural selection.

In a population of comparable entities, natural selection is no more than the spread of heritable variants that replicate at a higher rate than others. Natural selection is arithmetic applied to differences.

The principles are the same in all cases. The mechanisms of heredity vary across a spectrum of stability, from the relative inflexibility of the genome to the increasing flexibility of developmental switches, epigenesis, and learning, even to quantum computing. Each mechanism is optimized for a pertinent environment by natural selection itself.

Natural selection is potentially constrained by interactions within and between the entities in a population. It leads to greater complexity whenever it can produce more precise and accurate adaptations. The scope of evolution by natural selection thus includes the evolution of culture, cognition, and language. The scope enlarges still further to include even those decisions assisted by machines.

Finally, consider several misconceptions about natural selection. Each misconstrues issues addressed in this article. All contradict evidence or logic.

The first misconception claims that culture is distinct from biology and thus not subject to natural selection. On the contrary, environment and genome interact in the development of all organisms, including humans. All features of an organism, including their predispositions and capabilities for learning, are influenced by their genetic structure, just as all features of an organism are also influenced by their environmental context.

Another misconception is that natural selection cannot accommodate inheritance of environmental influences on individuals. We now know that such environmental influences can affect progeny, but natural selection produces and regulates the necessary mechanisms for these influences.

A third misconception is that natural selection, inasmuch as it is a selection, implies the existence of a selecting agent. Darwin was aware of this difficulty with the term "selection." Clearly rejecting any such agent, he nevertheless felt there was no succinct alternative for the term. Despite any limitations of language, there is no agent of natural selection.

Finally, it is sometimes claimed that selected individuals are morally superior. On the contrary, natural selection results from the arithmetic of survival and reproduction of genetic variants in limited populations. It has no more moral implications than any other example of arithmetic. Morality (ethics) instead applies to human attitudes toward the various consequences of natural selection. Because such behavioral dispositions are influenced by genes and by context, they are themselves influenced by natural selection.

Natural selection is thus not the child of morality; instead, morality is the child of natural selection. And not only morality but also philosophy. In the end, natural selection produces not only a philosophy of biology, but also a biology of philosophy.