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'Synergistic Selection' and the Evolutionary Process
© JOURNAL OF SOCIAL AND EVOLUTIONARY SYSTEMS 20(4):363-400 (1997)
"Often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts."
"The power and majesty of nature in all its aspects is lost on one who contemplates it merely in the detail of its parts and now as a whole."
Pliny the Elder
"The whole is something over and above its parts, and not just the sum of them all..."
"Holistic Darwinism" is not an oxymoron; it is a candidate name for a
post-neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm. When two functionally-linked genes are selected
together, or when two symbionts (say a ruminant and its gut bacteria) are jointly favored,
or when a group of communally nesting female wasps reproduce in greater abundance, the
unit of differential survival and reproduction (in functional terms) is the
"whole" -- the combined (synergistic) effects produced by the co-operating
parts. Holistic Darwinism involves a different perspective on the evolutionary process; it
is not a different theory. To borrow Richard Dawkins's image, it is an alternative way of
viewing the theoretical Necker cube. Holistic Darwinism is distinctive in that it is
concerned especially with the "bioeconomics" -- the functional costs and
benefits -- of co-operative phenomena of all kinds. It does not contradict the
neo-Darwinian assumption of gene self-interest but highlights the paradoxical
interdependence of genes and their "vessels". Indeed, it is argued that the unit
of replication (genes, genomes, gene pools), and their genetic relationships are less
important as determinants of co-operative phenomena than are the functional properties and
survival consequences of co-operation, as the data on such interactions, properly
interpreted, clearly suggest. (Maynard Smith has termed it "synergistic
selection.") Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain the evolution of
complexity -- an undisputed historical trend if not a "law". Holistic Darwinism
focusses on the causal role of functional synergy. There have been many
"engines" of evolutionary change, but the engine is nothing without the car.
Human evolution may provide an example.
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