Survival of the Systems

Timothy M. Lenton*, Timothy A. Kohler, Pablo A. Marquet, Richard A. Boyle, Michel Crucifix, David M. Wilkinson, Marten Scheffer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Since Darwin, individuals and more recently genes, have been the focus of evolutionary thinking. The idea that selection operates on nonreproducing, higher-level systems including ecosystems or societies, has met with scepticism. But research emphasising that natural selection can be based solely on differential persistence invites reconsideration of their evolution. Self-perpetuating feedback cycles involving biotic as well as abiotic components are critical to determining persistence. Evolution of autocatalytic networks of molecules is well studied, but the principles hold for any ‘self-perpetuating’ system. Ecosystem examples include coral reefs, rainforests, and savannahs. Societal examples include agricultural systems, dominant belief systems, and economies. Persistence-based selection of feedbacks can help us understand how ecological and societal systems survive or fail in a changing world.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTrends in Ecology and Evolution
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Jan 2021


  • ecosystem
  • feedback cycle
  • persistence
  • selection
  • social-ecological system

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