Propagation, Variation, and Selection as a Metapattern: New Ways of Envisioning Evolution Outside of the Biological Sphere

Thomas Flott
New York University

Citation information: Flott, Thomas. 2017. Propagation, variation, and selection as a metapattern: New ways of envisioning evolution outside of the biological sphere. The NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, volume 1, issue 1. Available at:


Cultural evolution and metapatterns are both distinct things that are useful in investigating aspects of cultural patterns. Cultural evolution has aspects to it that are similar to metapatterns because it shares “Darwinian principles” with biological evolution, namely the principles of propagation, variation, and selection (PVS). In this paper, I aim to demonstrate PVS is a metapattern, of which the field of cultural evolution is an example. This will be done using examples from a wide variety of different areas. This is only an exploratory paper, and therefore not all possible areas of consideration will be looked at. Future work could include examining areas not investigated here for evidence beyond the realm of human influence.


Mesoudi defines cultural evolution as the theory that cultural change can be described in terms of Darwinian principles, and that evolutionary biology tools can be applied equally well to studying cultural change.1 Similarly, Buskes recognizes the existence of “Darwin’s Formula, (or Darwinian Principles),” an algorithm comprised of variation, selection, and replication, which drives not only biological evolution, but also cultural evolution.2

Volk also uses the idea of Darwinian principles, but rephrases them as the processes of propagation, variation, and selection. These processes are what give rise to a significant number of new and different things in both culture and biology.3

In an earlier work, Volk discusses metapatterns, defining them as “a pattern so wide-flung that it appears throughout the spectrum of reality."4 Furthermore, he also discusses replication, variation, and selection as a metapattern in a 2009 paper.5 However, few examples were given to support this claim, and Volk also had not yet switched to the PVS phrasing, which I prefer. Therefore, this paper will aim to greatly expand the evidence behind PVS as a metapattern.

Areas of study in which the effects of PVS can be found include science, visual art, music, product development and other features of consumer product focused economy, language, and many others. I will briefly go through some of these and show how they provide evidence for PVS as a metapattern.


Biology provides the clearest and most obvious example of PVS. Regardless of the level of biological evolution being looked at, phylogenetic vs. genetic, it is clear that randomness in forms is introduced during the propagation of organisms, and this randomness leads to different levels of fitness for the different organisms. These different fitness levels ensure only some organisms (the fittest ones) will be able to propagate, and the cycle begins over again.

Visual Art

In visual art, an extremely clear example can be seen in the development of the Gothic architectural style out of the Romanesque, starting in 1135 with the construction of St. Denis near Paris, seen here in figure 1. Romanesque aspects are still visible in the divisions of the building into clear vertical and horizontal sections.

Figure 1. St. Denis outside of Paris. Source: Medieval Art, Professor Krinsky, NYU

This developed over time, leading to ever taller and more ornately decorated buildings, dissolving the defined nature of the Romanesque into many tiny details, which all ran together. Figure 2 clearly shows that development.
Figure 2. The development of the Gothic from St. Denis in 1135 and ending with Amiens in 1285. Source: Medieval Art, Professor Krinsky, NYU

Once established as a style, variation began to appear, German, English, and Italian styles which were all distinct from each other and the original French, all subject to the aesthetic demands of the cultures in which they originated and all at least partially driven by a desire to be seen as similar to the French, but still maintaining their own originality, seen here in Figure 3.
Figure 3. From left to right: St. Elisabeth in Marburg, Germany; St. Andrews Cathedral in Wells, England; Siena Cathedral in Italy. Source: Medieval Art, Professor Krinsky, NYU

Scientific Method

The scientific method itself functions as the PVS process on all of human knowledge, particularly in the scientific realm. Initially ideas are thought of and tested, or taken from already completed research and extended, and then placed into the world. This is the propagation step. Then, these results are ideally peer-reviewed, and re-tested, rigorously examined for any weakness or logical faultiness, which is the selection analog. Finally, successful results and ideas provide the basis upon which newer more advanced ideas can develop and proceed, introducing variation into the cycle.

Product Development Cycles

In the realm of the economy, we can see PVS at work in product development at large companies. In this area, the consumers buying various products are the selection pressure, while the propagation is handled by the company producing the products, and the variation is initiated by economists and designers attempting to predict what requirements the market will have in the future, i.e. attempting to guess how the selection forces will change in a year or two. A good analogy to this would be humans looking to the future and predicting a mostly aquatic world, and attempting to force ourselves to evolve gills. Figure 46 shows an example of the development of the iPhone, which followed this process.

Figure 4. Successive iPhone generations showing increasing screen size and decreasing surrounding material, following both consumer demands and technological advancement. Source: see above.

Habits, Behavior and Learning

The way our habits develop also point towards a PVS process. As we are growing up, we learn behaviors from our parents, and alter those behaviors to suit us (propagation and variation). For example, both of my parents love literature. I also love to read, but instead of reading Charles Dickens or John Irving (two favorites of my parents), I read science fiction and fantasy by people such as Cory Doctorow or Patrick Rothfuss. Behaviors or habits that are successful for us or provide us with positive results are kept, while those which are negative are gotten rid of (selection).


The way language has come to its current state of existence points to PVS. New words, or new meanings for old words (think cool, hip, radical, etc.) come into existence as each successive generation of language users comes up with their own slang and jargon to distinguish themselves from those that came before. Especially successful words and meanings that originate from the process will eventually find themselves as part of the common lexicon.

Internet Culture

Internet culture provides us with a way to examine PVS through both language and image based comedy (memes), but at an extremely accelerated pace, which allows us to observe the PVS process as it is happening. The slang of internet messaging boards such as reddit7 is almost exclusively text based, and is by degrees incomprehensible and ridiculous to outsiders. However, there are clear selection factors which lead to the form in which it currently exists! Factors such as limits on message length, which is seen on Twitter attempting to get as much information across in as short a time as possible (seen on instant messaging platforms), or even typos which are funny to the people reading them lead to complex text based internet dialects.


There exists a cyclical metapattern, referred to in this paper as PVS, which appears to be favorable or desirable in the development of ideal or perfect forms in almost every area of study or existence or theory that humans have discovered or invented. Future work will need to include exploring the idea of expanding the PVS definitions to areas such as pure math, or physics, and other areas outside the sphere of direct human influence. This is because in all of the areas discussed in this paper, humans and their psychology and neurology have functioned as the selection factors, leading to an anthropocentric focus in this paper.

Is it possible to avoid anthropocentricity in this metapattern? Biological evolution is one example of non-human mediated selection, but even that is changing with our increasing effect on the global environment, causing an increasing selective force in many different ecosystems, such as climate change leading to decreased ranges for polar bears and possibly leading to extinction for the species in the future.8

Another area of interest is more practical, i.e. expanding what metapatterns are, and how they are used. This is of particular interest with PVS, as its origins in biological evolution allow us to take tools from the biologist’s toolbox and apply them elsewhere. This has already been done with cultural evolution, but could it be applied further to solve problems in non-traditional ways in areas such as economics or art history?

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