Epistemology is that discipline of philosophy devoted to the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it. It is further divided into prescriptive and descriptive epistemology. Rules of how to proceed to acquire knowledge are called “methods,” and hence a prescriptive epistemology is a “methodism.” Descriptive epistemologies are sometimes referred to as “sociology of knowledge,” although many descriptive epistemologies are not sociological.
The field derives from three main sources. One is the work of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who wrote that the synthetic a priori judgments of Kant are the a posteriori results of evolution. That is to say, our “innate” ideas, which are not the basic theorems of logical necessity, are the outcome of selection on human cognition and that of our ancestors.
Another is the program begun by philosopher Willard Van Ormand Quine, to “naturalize” epistemology, based on the work of Carnap and the Pragmatists. Quine famously wrote that “creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic, but praiseworthy, tendency to die before reproducing their kind” (Quine, 1969 p. 126).
Under the influence of Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell, a number of thinkers proposed to model epistemic, and especially scientific, change as a selection process. Early on, Popper presented a selection theory of theory change in which scientific theories are subjected to strong selection pressures through testing, so that the fittest theories survive. In later works, he repeated this view, which can arguably be traced back to comments in his 1934 edition of Logik der Forschung. He attempted to argue that biological mutations also follow a pattern of anticipatory behavioral change followed by genetic “hopeful monsters,” in order to make a parallel with theory change. A conjecture, he said, is an anticipatory behavioral change, while the formalized and tested theory is the transmissible entity in conceptual evolution; so he had to show that biological evolution could anticipate the future. The “modern synthesis” rejected this hopeful monsterism, and recent research has backed that up. If biological evolution were purposive, then an explanation in terms of the underlying harmony or order of things might indeed suffice to confirm anticipatory change, and by analogy the same could be true of theory change.
Beginning largely in the 1970s, attempts were made to bring evolutionary models to broader epistemology, misleadingly called by Donald Campbell “evolutionary epistemology” (EE). The term misleads because, like evolutionary ethics before it, it is an oxymoron; where it is evolutionary, it is descriptive, and hence not classical epistemology, and when it is prescribing epistemic rules and heuristics, it is not (in the Darwinian sense) evolutionary, as what has worked in the past is not necessarily a guide to truth or what will work in the future. Moreover, the movement has two broad streams: one concerned with the evolution of cognitive processes (especially those dear to empiricists; vision and the other senses), the other an attempt to provide an evolutionary process model of the growth (or less prejudicially, the development) of knowledge. Bradie distinguished between evolutionary evolution of mechanisms (EEM) and evolutionary epistemology of theories (EET).
Epistemic evolutionists accept that there are a number of fundamental disanalogies between Darwinian biological evolution and theoretical evolution, especially in science, although there is considerable disagreement about the number and nature of these disanalogies. Some consider that the evolutionary development of our cognitive mechanisms is, at best, merely sufficient to ensure our survival (or that our more abstract cognitive faculties are pleiotropic upon those faculties required for survival) and that theoretical evolution is so decoupled from biological evolution that our biologically constrained intuition is repeatedly undermined by theories of science. For example: “solid objects” are mostly space, colors are wavelengths of light, and so forth. Hence, the reliability of our senses is not established by our (biological) evolutionary success. This decoupling of theoretical (and more broadly of cultural) evolution from biological evolution is further supported by the supposed Lamarckian nature of the former. To this extent, almost without exception, epistemic evolutionism is not Darwinian; that is to say, it posits non-Darwinian processes either of epistemic variation, selection, or hereditability or some mix of these.
Under the cultural Lamarckist model, either the variation is not random with respect to the selection processes (it is directed toward problem solving, and hypotheses act like Goldschmidt’s now discredited “hopeful monsters,” anticipating the selective processes either behaviorally or phenotypically) or the selection process is not blind (theories are chosen on endogenous rational grounds, not on exogenous and contingent considerations. That is, the optimum future theory is sought by the process rather than the currently merely adequate, as in biology, or theories are not causally determined in transmission (those receiving the theories are agents who may rationally reject or modify the information coded for by the cultural items passed on).
Some other major claimed disanalogies include (1) the fact that a single theoretician may entertain a sequence of theories over his or her lifetime, unlike an organism that has a specific phenotype; (2) that there is lateral as well as vertical transmission (we are influenced by our peers as well as earlier generations); and (3) that there are a lack of corollaries for “ecology,” “resources,” “competition,” genes, and other fundamental concepts of the biological Darwinian view and that proposals for analogues are vague and involve a lot of hand-waving but very little rigor.
Many evolutionary epistemologists accept with Popper that guided cultural transmission underpins a directed evolution of science, and that it makes absolute progress, and that progress and its telic nature are the result of conscious rational decisions, in contrast to the undirected, unconscious, and blind workings of Darwinian biology. Given this basic difference of mechanism and process, it is difficult to see why these writers would want to call their epistemological evolution theories “Darwinian” at all. Each of them admits that the process involved is not blind, either in the selection or generation of variations.
In effect, these views fall within two of three increasingly more inclusive sets: they are process epistemologies, they are selective epistemologies, but they are not Darwinian epistemologies (in contrast to David Hull’s account of science, perhaps the best example of a purely descriptive evolutionary epistemology. That is, the processes they posit as selection processes in science are not Darwinian processes. A process epistemology explains knowledge as the outcome of dynamic and historical (diachronic) processes: the historical and causal chains that have brought it about. Process epistemologies have a necessarily sociological character to them; knowledge is seen as the production of a community (an ecology), not of an individual, however brilliant. A selective epistemology is one in which epistemic change is the result of selective retention. A Darwinian epistemology is one that claims that variation and retention are not purposive with respect to the overall outcome of change; that is, intentions do not determine the success of final product.
Evolutionary epistemology is basically an attempt to show that the Kantian a prioris are the phylogenetic a posterioris, as Lorenz expressed it. In other words, it seeks to legitimate Kantian categories (or some equivalent) as constraints brought about by severe selection processes, survivors of which are the most robust and probably the most reliable. In this way, EE attempts to avoid Humean difficulties with induction-like heuristic justifications: To justify your heuristic, merely establish its provenance and success rate to date. In this, there is a severe difficulty for epistemic evolutionism: In no organism that results from biological evolution is full cohesion or optimality achieved; why should even a Lamarckian process succeed in science? Why should directed evolution work any better (except in that it would be faster) than an undirected evolutionary process, unless, of course, the director is God or some such omniscient factor? Directed or undirected, the success of an evolutionary adaptation lies in the “solution” of problems similar to those for which the adaptation was first selected.
If an epistemology is a modeling of what an ideally or realistically successful heuristic looks like, and it makes prescriptions of the kind “in order to best achieve knowledge of kind k, use rules and methods h,” then evolutionary epistemology is ill-founded, for such prescriptions simply cannot be drawn from Darwinian or any other biological theory. A case in point is the repeated insistence that sociocultural evolution must be Lamarckian. By this is usually meant that sociocultural change is a process of artificial selection, to the specifications of evolutionary “engineers” (scientists, social planners, economists, and shadowy controlling figures in industry). Yet artificial selection is a subset of “natural” selection processes, albeit rather more severe than the usual process of natural selection. A breeder may achieve quickly a certain coloring or ear length, but the resultant animal may also be fragile or disease ridden. To achieve a robust variation may still take a long time and much trial and error. Nothing about artificial selection gives us confidence that fitness will be more reliably gained than it would be through undirected selection. It is possible that sociocultural selection of rational variations is as random as natural selection is with respect to the selection forces operative. The selection process relevant to macroevolutionary trends in sociocultural systems is of a quite different order than for the selection involved at the individual level in generating and choosing beliefs. If intentionality in variation is decoupled from the success of the selection outcome—wishing a theory to be true (in any relevant sense) does not make it so—then even a Lamarckian epistemic evolutionism fails to establish how success to date underpins the warrant of any methodological morals drawn from the past. As philosopher Hilary Putnam has expressed it, it’s not that evolutionary epistemology is false, but rather that it fails to answer the philosophically interesting questions (such as why we should believe our selected ideas or whether they are in fact correct, or merely help us survive). There are a number of critics of evolutionary epistemology, and a comprehensive bibliography can be found in Cziko and Campbell.
- Bradie, M. (1994). The secret chain: evolution and ethics, SUNYseries in philosophy and biology. New York: SUNY Press.
- Cziko, G. A., & Campbell, D. T. (1990). Comprehensive evolutionary epistemology bibliography. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 13(1), 41-82.
- Hull, D. L. (1988). Science as a process: An evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lorenz, K. (1965). Evolution and modification of behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- O’Hear, A. (1999). After progress: Finding the old way forward. London: Bloomsbury.
- Plotkin, H. C. (1994). The nature of knowledge: Concerning adaptations, instinct, and the evolution ofintelligence. Harmondsworth, UK: Allen Lane/Penguin.
- Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Radnitzky, G., & Bartley W. III. (Eds.). (1987). Evolutionary epistemology, rationality, and the sociology of knowledge. La Salle, IL: Open Court.
- Wuketits, F. M. (1984). Concepts and approaches in evolutionary epistemology: Towards an evolutionary theory of knowledge, theory, and decision library (Vol. 36). Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Boston: D. Reidel.