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Szathmáry, Eörs: On the propagation of a conceptual error concerning hypercycles and cooperation. In: Journal of Systems Chemistry 2013, 4:1




The hypercycle is a system of replicators, whose members are auto- and cross-catalytic: replication of each member is catalyzed by at least one other member of the system. Therefore, the kinetics of growth of every member is at least second order. In ecology such systems are called mutualistic whose members are cooperating with each other. The dynamics of such systems are described broadly by the replicator equation. In chemistry hypercycles are often confused with collectively autocatalytic systems in which the members catalyze each other’s formation rather than replication (growth being therefore first-order). Examples of this confusion abound in the literature. The trouble is that such category errors mistakenly imply that the available theories of hypercycles and cooperation are applicable, although in fact they are not. Cooperation in population biology means a higher-order interaction among agents with (at least the capacity of) multiplication. From the point of evolution, what matters is the genetic effects on the cooperative act. As systems chemistry has one of its roots in the theoretical biology, insights from this field ought to be respected even by experimentalists, let alone theoreticians.