Systemic Theory of Evolution, Critical Discussion

A Generalization of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Peter Mersch



Darwin has proposed a widely accepted mechanism explaining the evolution of biological species, natural selection: generally more offspring are produced than can be supported by environmental resources; individuals of a population differ genetically and those survive or at least produce more offspring which succeed in the competition for resources (struggle for existence).

However, evolution is not restricted to biological species, we observe that human societies, states, economic systems, scientific theories etc. can evolve as well. Is it possible to develop a theory which includes the explanation of the development (evolution) of such systems?

Here we discuss critically Peter Mersch’s Systemic Theory of Evolution. Peter Mersch is a mathematician with much experience in information technology and has published several books on the theory. This knol is an extended translation of my German knol on the topic.


Principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution

Darwin has proposed a widely accepted mechanism explaining the evolution of biological species, natural selection: generally more offspring are produced than can be supported by environmental resources; individuals of a population differ genetically and those survive or produce at least more offspring that succeed in the competition for resources (struggle for existence).
Details here.

Can Darwins theory be generalized?

Evolution is not restricted to biological species, we observe that human societies, states, economic systems, scientific theories etc. can evolve as well. Is it possible to formulate a theory which can give an explanation of the development (evolution) of such systems? Attempts have been made to do just that, among them social Darwinism and sociobiology, which – however – have not found general acceptance. Peter Mersch has developed a general theory of evolution which is a generalization of Darwinism and based on general systems theory,  “systemic” materialism, sociobiology and demography. He named this theory “Systemic Theory of Evolution”. A detailed representation of this theory, on which this knol is based,  was given by Lena Waider und Peter Mersch. I concentrate on the points that appear important and convincing to me. Further articles on the systemic theory of evolution here.

Systemic Theory of Evolution

The Systemic Theory of Evolution claims to be a generalization of Darwin’s theory of evolution, applicable not only to biological organisms but to all “units” capable of evolution (evolutionsfähige Einheiten), such as superorganisms (e.g., states, corporations). According to Mersch, Darwin’s theory cannot be used to describe socio-cultural evolution, and there are fundamental objections to memetics proposed by Richard Dawkins, which represents a further development of Darwin’s theory. In particular, Darwinism cannot explain the demographic-economic paradox, according to which the reproductive success of humans is not positively but negatively correlated with social success (obtainment of resources).

The Systemic Theory of Evolution assumes that only populations whose individuals are “self-reproducing”, are capable of evolution. Genes and also memes in the sense of Dawkins are not self-reproducing and therefore not capable of evolution. In contrast, biological organisms that possess genes or memes can reproduce and therefore evolve. For this reason it is wrong to claim that genes want to reproduce themselves (the “egoistic gene” of Dawkins). Mersch defines systems capable of evolution (= evolutionary actors) as open systems (i.e., as systems that are not in equilibrium in the sense of Von Bertalanffy), which (1) possess competences for the obtainment of resources, (2) can reproduce competence, and (3) possess reproductive interest, i.e. can pursue evolution actively and with their own dynamics. The first two points correspond with Darwinism, the last point replaces natural selection of Darwin. Important for the application of Mersch’s theory is that the evolution of systems can only be understood if self-reproducing elements in them can be demonstrated. Competences do not have to be genetically determined, and distribution of resources can occur by “dominant communication” (= “right of the stronger”) or by “please-the-other-communication” (= “right of the owner”). The latter is important in sexual selection and as the basis for the development of markets and civilization).

Formulated somewhat differently one can say that the evolutionary principles of the Systemic Theory of Evolution are as follows: (1) variation (self-reproductive individuals with different competences), (2) reproductive interest (individuals possibly with different reproductive interests leading to competition for resources via dominant and/or please-the-other-communication), and (3) reproduction (reproductive processes that maintain variation). 1 and 3 are generalizations of Darwins evolutionary theory, 2 replaces the selection principles of Darwin.


The Systemic Theory of Evolution differs from Darwinism in that it does not assume that individuals (or genes) of a population generally want to leave as much offspring as possible, but that they can possess different reproductive interests (such as different casts of social insects). It differs from sociobiology which assumes that individual reproductive interests determine social behaviour, in that social organization does not necessarily determine individual reproductive interests genetically. Darwin’s explanation is a special case of the Systemic Theory of Evolution for populations whose individuals all possess similar reproductive interests. – In general, the Systemic Theory of Evolution claims that differential successes of evolutionary actors in the reproduction of their competences (information) determine evolution.

Importantly, the Systemic Theory of Evolution emphasizes reproductive interests and not reproductive success.

A glance at the development of technology shows that the demonstration of self-reproduction is decisive. In technology not the technical appliances but the firms producing them are the self-reproducing elements capable of evolution; appliances are the competences of such firms. Resources for financing the maintenance of competence are money for which various competitors in the market, their living space, compete. One can also say that the development (evolution) of technology is a ‘side effect’ of the real evolution of the firms. Similarly one can  say that not the kind of share-trading, but the financial institutions in which the trade occurs, are the actors capable of evolution.

Social Darwinism

Of particular importance is the rejection of Social Darwinism by the Systemic Theory of Evolution. Social Darwinism maintains that the right of the stronger is also valid in human civilization: the stronger (individual, class, state) is always in the right. However, as shown above, in socially organized communities like the human ones reproductive interests of individuals are not identical, i.e., different individuals do not necessarily compete maximally for resources, and the “please-the-other-communication” has replaced the “dominant communication” (right of the stronger) to a large degree.

Historical predecessors

Nietzsche already pointed out that the struggle for existence assumed by Darwin is the exception rather than the rule, because in nature there is largely surplus and not deficiency. For that reason Nietzsche stressed the active nature of evolution (“evolutionary actors” of the Systemic Theory of Evolution), which in general cannot be understood as the  result of the struggle for limited resources (see here). Schopenhauer stressed the active role of evolution already before Nietzsche (see here). Nietzsche also pointed out that in modern man the most gifted (in the widest sense) produce fewer offspring than the less gifted, i.e., he recognized the demographic-economic paradox. – Applications of systems theory to evolution have also been proposed by various other authors, for example Riedl [1] (further references here and here). These approaches differ in many important aspects from that of Mersch.

Critical evaluation of the Systemic Theory of Evolution

We ask: does the Systemic theory of Evolution represent a progress over Darwinism? Can it explain biological evolution and beyond it the evolution of higher systems such as states, cultures, technology and economic systems?

First, however, a few words on some points which I have considered little or not at all in the above outline, because I find them to be unimportant or even wrong. Peter Mersch refers to “ontological materialism” as one of the foundations of his theory (changed in the later versions of his knol). It appear to me that for example the epistemological idealism of Kant or Schopenhauer can easily be accommodated in Mersch’s theory for a very simple reason, matter is phenomenologically identical in materialism and such idealism. Why therefore take a position that may lead to justified objections, in particular since materialism is by no means generally accepted. – Mersch refers to three levels of self-reproducing systems: Protista (unicellular organisms), Metazoa (multicellular organisms) and superorganisms (organisational systems, corporations etc.) and even seems to suggest a certain temporal sequence of the various levels. This appears to be arbitrary and not essential for the discussion. Even protistans possess some characteristics of superorganisms (symbiosis of various organelles, which in toto are “self-reproducing systems with processes for information obtainment”), and viruses possess at least some characteristics of living organisms, although they are not unicellular. – Mersch writes that in natural selection, nature, and in sexual selection, the population, represent the environment. However, populations of the same and other species are very important in natural selection. In other words, organisms are without doubt an important (if not the most important) component of nature as far as other organisms are concerned.  – Mersch claims that Darwinism cannot explain the demographic-economic paradox. However, it is at least in principle possible to explain the paradox as an excessive evolutionary development: excessive development of the brain and connected with it the loss of appetite for getting and raising children. Many examples of excessive developments are known to have occurred in evolutionary history; they can be explained by one-sided selection: excessive characteristics had temporary competitive advantages but finally led to extinction [2].

Apart from these points, the Systemic Theory of Evolution is, in my opinion, important. It gives an elegant comprehensive explanation of evolution in many systems, whether biological or social (in the widest sense). Darwinism can be derived from it as a special case. It deserves to become more widely known. The assumption of evolutionary actors that drive evolution with their own dynamics, in contrast to purely passively selected units agrees with newer theoretical insights, according to which self organization of complex systems is an important evolutionary factor [3]. But it is important that examples used to support the theory are continually re-examined on the basis of the latest state of science. Thus, the “altruistic” behaviour of larvae of the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum can simply be explained by the fact that larvae infecting the ant-intermediate host are genetically identical (perhaps with some exceptions), no additional explanations are necessary. This is as valid here as in other scientific disciplines. Numerous examples in ecology were originally interpreted quite differently from how they are interpreted today. And there is no guarantee that the present interpretation is the last word. Panta rei !

Empirical (experimental etc.) evidence

Darwin’s theory of evolution, for one and a half century, has been the conceptual framework for interpreting biological observations and planning experiments. There can be no doubt that it explains much of what we see in nature. Of course, there have been developments which were originally not foreseen by Darwin, such as the major role of genetic drift/neutral evolution, but in general  experimental and in a wider sense empirical evidence has supported Darwin’s theory. The modern synthetic theory of evolution (Simpson, Dobzhansky, Rensch, Huxley, etc.) takes all modern developments until about 50 years ago into account. Even more recently, however, various theoretical approaches have suggested that self-organization in nature is of major importance. Not everything can be explained by natural selection (Kauffman [3] and Wolfram [4] [5], for example, went so far as to state that many traits of organisms have not evolved because of natural selection, but in spite of it). Others have shown that optimization in nature, optimal adaptation of organisms to their environment, is rarely possible because of the great variability of environmental conditions [6], which may cast some doubt on the overriding importance of natural selection.  Many of these modern developments have been discussed in Rohde 2005 [7]. – The Systemic Theory of Evolution corresponds closely to Darwinism in many aspects of interpreting biological systems. Are there experimental (or in the wider sense empirical) approaches that allow conclusions about whether Darwinism or the Systemic Theory of Evolution more correctly explains those features of the biological/social world for which the two theories supply different explanations? This is a critical  question that will give a final answer to the question posed at the beginning of this discussion: Is it possible to develop a theory which includes the explanation of systems such as human civilization that goes beyond Darwinism? Peter Mersch has given examples that are difficult to explain in the Darwinian framework, but such examples should be phrased in a way that allow clear falsification or verification.


  1. Riedl, R. (1990 [1975]): Die Ordnung des Lebendigen. Systembedingungen der Evolution, Serie Piper, Piper, München.
  2. Rensch, Bernhard 1954. Neuere Probleme der Abstammungslehre. Ferdinand Enke Verlag Stuttgart.
  3. Kauffman, Stuart A.. 1993. The Origin of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York Oxford.
  4. Wolfram, S. 1986. Theory and Applications of Cellular Automata: Advanced Series on Complex Systems. Singapore, World Scientific Publishing.
  5. Wolfram, S. 2002. A New Kind of Science. Wolfram Media, Inc. Champaign, Ill.
  6. Hengeveld, R. and Walter, G.H. 1999. The two coexisting ecological paradigms. Acta Biotheoretica 47, 141-170.
  7. Rohde, K. 2005. Nonequilibrium Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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