19 May 2012

Union Stations of Evolutionary Systems

Posted by jofr

“We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection.”
~ E.O. Wilson [2]

Richard Dawkins introduced in his book “The selfish gene” [1] the ORGANISM AS VEHICLE metaphor: he argued eloquently that biological organisms can be considered as survival machines of genes, used by them to lever themselves into the next generation.

If this vehicle would be a train, i.e. if we consider evolution as a railway, then biological organisms can be compared to trains, which carry their genes from one generation to the next. The genes would be the passengers, the organisms the trains, and the different generations of organisms would be like stations – stations where the passengers of the next generation are shuffled, arranged and selected by natural selection. This means the station would correspond to the common place or time where the organisms meet and where natural selection takes place. The place would be the nest, territory or city, the time would be the common generation.

Human generations in particular are not like a normal station, they are more like a union station. They contain a population of replicators from different places and different systems (genes, memes, or abstract replicators like ideas in general) waiting to be processed. They are not only subject to natural selection, they are also affected by group selection.

In North America, a union station is usually owned by a separate corporation whose shares are owned by the different railways which use it, so that the costs and benefits of its operations are shared proportionately among them. Stations are places where different people and passengers meet. Union stations are moreover stations which are owned and used by different systems.

The human mind is in fact like a joint venture whose shares are owned by the different evolutionary systems that use it, whether genes or memes, a product of interacting and often competing evolutionary systems. A product of a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, or, as E.O. Wilson puts it [2]: “Right now we’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilisation but we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous.”  Humans are a bit like union stations where all kinds of different characters meet, from Star Wars to Stone Age. And all these people struggle with each other to get the next train. Wilson writes [3] “the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be”.

It is this duality of Star Wars and Stone Age that is so specific and characteristic for us. One reason is that multilevel selection was our origin in the first place. In the words of E.O. Wilson [2]: “Humans originated by multilevel selection – individual selection interacting with group selection [..] We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society.”


[1] Richard Dawkins,  The selfish gene, Oxford University Press, 1976

[2] E.O. Wilson, The full-blown American Optimist, New Scientist 21 April 2012 (34-35)

[3] Natalie Angier, Edward O. Wilson’s New Take on Human Nature, Smithsonian magazine, April 2012


(The picture of a union station in L.A. is from Wikipedia)


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