Evolutionary epistemology  

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Evolutionary epistemology refers to two distinct topics: it is a subfield of naturalized epistemology as well as a theory in epistemology about the growth of knowledge.


A branch of naturalized epistemology

Evolutionary epistemology is a branch of epistemology that applies the concepts of biological evolution to the growth of human knowledge. It argues that the mind is in part genetically determined and that its structure and function reflect adaptation, an ongoing, nonteleological process of interaction between the organism and its environment. A cognitive trait tending to increase inclusive fitness in a given population should therefore grow more common over time, and a trait tending to prevent its carriers from passing on their genes should show up less and less frequently.

A theory about the growth of knowledge

Evolutionary epistemologists argue that units of knowledge themselves, particularly scientific theories, evolve according to selection. In this case, a theory—like the germ theory of disease—becomes more or less credible according to changes in the body of knowledge surrounding it.

One of the hallmarks of evolutionary epistemology is the notion that empirical testing does not justify the truth of scientific theories, but rather that social and methodological processes select those theories with the closest "fit" to a given problem. The mere fact that a theory has survived the most rigorous empirical tests available does not, in the calculus of probability, predict its ability to survive future testing. Karl Popper used Newtonian physics as an example of a body of theories so thoroughly confirmed by testing as to be considered unassailable, but which were nevertheless overturned by Einstein's bold insights into the nature of space-time. For the evolutionary epistemologist, all theories are true only provisionally, regardless of the degree of empirical testing they have survived.

Popper is considered by many to have given evolutionary epistemology its first comprehensive treatment, though Donald T. Campbell coined the phrase in 1974 (Schilpp, 1974).

See also


  • Karl R. Popper. Objective Knowledge, An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Schilpp, P. A., ed. The Philosophy of Karl R. Popper. LaSalle, IL. Open Court. 1974. See Campbell's essay, "Evolutionary Epistemology" on pp. 412-463.
  • Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding: Volume 1: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts, 1972.
  • Harms, William F., Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology) , 2004

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