Evolution is the fundamental physical process that gives rise to biological phenomena. Yet it is widely treated as a subset of population genetics, and thus its scope is artificially limited. As a result, the key issues of how rapidly evolution occurs, and its coupling to ecology have not been satisfactorily addressed and formulated. The lack of widespread appreciation for, and understanding of, the evolutionary process has arguably retarded the development of biology as a science, with disastrous consequences for its applications to medicine, ecology and the global environment. This review focuses on evolution as a problem in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, where the key dynamical modes are collective, as evidenced by the plethora of mobile genetic elements whose role in shaping evolution has been revealed by modern genomic surveys. We discuss how condensed matter physics concepts might provide a useful perspective in evolutionary biology, the conceptual failings of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the open-ended growth of complexity, and the quintessentially self-referential nature of evolutionary dynamics.