Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 351-368

First online:

The Role of Intuitive Ontologies in Scientific Understanding – the Case of Human Evolution

  • Helen De CruzAffiliated withCentre for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Free University of Brussels Email author 
  • , Johan De SmedtAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and Moral Science, Ghent University

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Psychological evidence suggests that laypeople understand the world around them in terms of intuitive ontologies which describe broad categories of objects in the world, such as ‘person’, ‘artefact’ and ‘animal’. However, because intuitive ontologies are the result of natural selection, they only need to be adaptive; this does not guarantee that the knowledge they provide is a genuine reflection of causal mechanisms in the world. As a result, science has parted ways with intuitive ontologies. Nevertheless, since the brain is evolved to understand objects in the world according to these categories, we can expect that they continue to play a role in scientific understanding. Taking the case of human evolution, we explore relationships between intuitive ontological and scientific understanding. We show that intuitive ontologies not only shape intuitions on human evolution, but also guide the direction and topics of interest in its research programmes. Elucidating the relationships between intuitive ontologies and science may help us gain a clearer insight into scientific understanding.

Key words

Essentialism Folk biology Folk physics Folk psychology Human evolution Human–nonhuman distinction Intuitive ontologies Palaeoanthropology