Evolutionary epistemology considers the scientific processes and bounds of knowledge, with an emphasis on natural selection as the crucial source of sensate cognition by which organisms adapt to their environments. This mode of naturalistic epistemology contrasts significantly with the traditional transcendant formulation, which presupposes no particular format of knowledge. The traditional approach traces to Plato, who sought to differentiate knowledge from true belief insofar as the true belief does not require justification. Later rational empiricists, notably Descartes, sought to identify and further systematize the bounds and processes of human knowledge, particularly as it is organized in neuromental assemblages. Ultimately, the two approaches converge in the aim of traditional epistemology to reconstruct human knowledge via justification that separates knowledge from merely true beliefs.
However, Darwinian insights of the 19th century cast humans as natural beings arising in the course of evolution. As means of human knowledge and belief are likewise expressions of natural selection, they are perhaps best analyzed and systematized by the scientific method in general and the principles of evolution more specifically. Hence, there is a pragmatic, not transcendant, basis for epistemics rooted in a priori facts of evolutionary biology and psychology.
Evolutionary epistemology has two main component interests: adaptation as it occurs both through phylogeny or within individual development and understanding the legacy of ideas, concepts, and cultural tropes in which knowledge exists. With respect to adaptation, the phylogenetic analysis of evolutionary epistemology takes up how the mechanisms of sentience fit the world. This is a direct extension of Darwinian concepts to philosophy insofar as the heuristic function of knowledge is to enhance reproductive fitness. Thus, evolutionary epistemology of adaptation posits, in the first instance, that the processes and bounds of knowledge accumulate and evolve as the result of variation and selection. Otherwise, the ontogenic aspect of adaptation takes up how individual ontogeny of knowledge is also an expression of processes in which variation and selection play a central role. Trial-and-error learning or the development of scientific theories are obvious examples of this second element in the evolutionary epistemology of adaptation.
These direct correspondences between mechanisms of evolution with those of ideation were noted by Darwin, Spencer, Romanes, Poincare, Dewey, William James, and others. However, it was only more recently that evolutionary epistemology was systematized as a cogent philosophical approach to knowledge, first by Karl Popper and then by Donald T. Campbell and others.
Popper emphasized conjecture and refutation as key elements of valid science and also noted that every scientific theory must be falsifiable; that is, it must be subject to deselection. Such an iterative trial-and-error process accumulates knowledge about the world. In his later work, Popper emphasized analogies between this iterative conjecture/ refutation process and the very similar operations of natural selection, in what he deemed evolutionary epistemology.
Campbell greatly elaborates this approach to take in the whole of evolutionary neuromental processes subserving knowledge in sentient beings. Campbell’s project directly applies Darwinian principles to educe three main provisos:
- Blind variation and selective retention: Primitive processes for new knowledge are blind. However, even without foresight as to what may be learned, ineffective elements are deselected whereas adaptive elements are retained.
- Vicarious selector: Trial-and-error processes recede as “fit” knowledge accumulates and functions as a selector predictive of environmental selective pressures.
- Nested hierarchy: Retained selectors may also be subject to variation and selection at a higher level. This fosters cognitive-emotive-rational assemblages at higher levels of ever-more-intelligent adaptive systems.
But there is another strand of evolutionary epistemology beyond this cognitive neurobiological perspective, as there is a need to explain the evolution of epistemic norms of ideation itself. To this end, models of scientific theory and human culture are constructed in a manner compatible with evolutionary neurobiology. Ultimately, this other main component relates to semiotics and meaning making as it analyzes the scientific method itself in evolutionary terms as varying hypotheses are selected on the accumulation of useful information.
These two interrelated but quite different aspects of the field have become known, respectively, as the evolution of epistemological mechanisms (EEM) and evolutionary epistemology of theories (EET). Valid EEM selectionist explanations (for example, how the brain works) do not in themselves explicate how systems of human knowledge are assembled.
Conversely, valid EET explanations of how human knowledge systems are selected do not in themselves explicate the neurobiological mechanisms of perception or cognition.
Indeed, one major criticism of evolutionary epistemology is that it traverses and perhaps conflates several levels and domains of evolution—biological, sensory, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, social, and linguistic—even as it also addresses the rather different realm of the evolution of scientific concepts. A more complete epistemology of human knowledge must explain how these processes interact within both phylogeny and individual development as well as with respect to the evolution of scientific culture. Thus, some argue that neither EEM nor EET analyses are proper works of epistemology, at least as epistemology is traditionally a normative discipline. However, the rigorous consideration of evolutionary possibilities and constraints with respect to processes and bounds of knowledge has greatly enriched traditonal epistemology. It has also brought attention to important issues of practical importance in an era marked by major progress in neuromental sciences.
Evolutionary epistemology may best offer descriptive accounts of knowledge mechanisms, whereas traditional epistemology attends to the resolution of prescriptive issues of continuing philosophical interest. At the very least, evolutionary epistemology enhances traditional methods as it helps identify implausible normative prescriptive notions that are inconsistent with evolutionary perspectives concerning human understanding.
- Bradie, M. (1986). Assessing evolutionary epistemology. Biology & Philosophy, 1, 401-459.
- Campbell, D. (1960). Blind variation and selective retention. Creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychological Review, 67, 380-400.
- MacLean, P. (1990). The triune brain in evolution. New York: Plenum.
- Popper, K. (1972). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.