Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 215-239

First online:

Selection without replicators: the origin of genes, and the replicator/interactor distinction in etiobiology

  • John S. WilkinsAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Sydney Email author 
  • , Clem StanyonAffiliated withInstitut des science biologique, Centre national de la recherche scientifique
  • , Ian MusgraveAffiliated withDiscipline of Pharmacology, University of Adelaide

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Genes are thought to have evolved from long-lived and multiply-interactive molecules in the early stages of the origins of life. However, at that stage there were no replicators, and the distinction between interactors and replicators did not yet apply. Nevertheless, the process of evolution that proceeded from initial autocatalytic hypercycles to full organisms was a Darwinian process of selection of favourable variants. We distinguish therefore between Neo-Darwinian evolution and the related Weismannian and Central Dogma divisions, on the one hand, and the more generic category of Darwinian evolution on the other. We argue that Hull’s and Dawkins’ replicator/interactor distinction of entities is a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for Darwinian evolution to take place. We conceive the origin of genes as a separation between different types of molecules in a thermodynamic state space, and employ a notion of reproducers.


Gene Origins of life Etiobiology Hypercycle Autocatalysis Natural selection Neo-Darwinism Replicator Interactor Reproducer Weismann Dawkins Hull