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Converging Concepts of Evolutionary Epistemology and Cognitive Biology Within a Framework of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

  • Isabella Sarto-JacksonEmail author
Article

Abstract

Evolutionary epistemology (EE) has experienced a continuous rise over the last decades. Important new theoretical considerations and novel empirical findings have been integrated into the existing framework (Gontier and Bradie 2018). In this paper, I would like to suggest three lines of research that I believe will significantly contribute to further advance EE: (1) ontogenetic considerations, (2) key ideas from cognitive biology, and (3) the framework of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. (1) EE, in particular the program of the evolution of epistemological mechanisms (EEM), seeks to provide a phylogenetic account of the generation of cognitive processes underlying knowledge creation (Bradie and Harms 2017). Traditionally, EE and EEM have been oriented towards an account of evolutionary theory that mainly drew from the tenets of the Modern Synthesis. The Modern Synthesis largely dismisses ontogenetic processes and considers them irrelevant for evolutionary explanations. If anything, the role of development in evolution is believed to be that of a constraint. There is, however, ample evidence for a tight intertwinement of developmental and evolutionary processes. Organisms employ their cognitive apparatus to interact with the environment in order to achieve a fully functioning perceptual and cognitive nervous system. Also, ontogeny provides generative potentials to enable variations that natural selection can act upon. EEM’s agenda may, therefore, strongly benefit from bringing together ontogenetic and phylogenetic approaches. To grapple with this challenge, an alternative vision of the evolutionary theory termed Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (Pigliucci and Müller 2010) could be used. This extended evolutionary theory explores relationships between the processes of individual development and phenotypic change during evolution (i.e., EvoDevo) and can provide a more suitable framework for EEM to draw from. (2) In recent years, cognitive biology has gained momentum as an independent research field. Cognitive biology builds on the concepts of EEM and understands knowledge as a biogenic phenomenon. Its main objective is also the formulation of substantiated interrelations between cognition and evolution but it focuses on cognitive functionality at all levels of biological organization. It thus employs a “vertical” approach that encompasses nested hierarchies which span from single molecules, cells, and tissues to the organismal level, communities, and societies. In contrast to cognitive biology, EEM is here understood to adopt a “horizontal” approach that focuses on phylogenetic explanations of cognition and knowledge acquisition (Kovac 2006). Linking EEM with the key ideas of cognitive biology could make EEM’s research program stronger as it can more easily accommodate phylogenetic and ontogenetic questions within a hierarchical, multilevel perspective. This is of particular importance for a more comprehensive account of cognition since living systems are subject to context-dependent causal influences from different organizational levels. (3) In addition to EEM, there is a second program of EE. This program has been labeled evolutionary epistemology of theories (EET) and understands the increase in human knowledge, such as scientific theories, as naturalistic accounts of evolution. Both, EEM and EET initially drew from the core concepts of the Modern Synthesis. Several scholars have severely criticized the analogies made between EET and the Neo-Darwinian key processes of evolution. In particular processes of random mutation, the rate of variation, natural selection as the unique driving force, and the adaptationist agenda are believed to reveal disanalogies. In contrast to the Modern Synthesis, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis not only recognizes developmental processes but also ecological interactions and systems dynamics as well as social and cultural evolutionary reciprocity as important evolutionary processes. Concepts of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis are therefore expected to be more fruitful for re-conceptualizing parallels between scientific theorizing and biological evolution.

Keywords

Evolutionary epistemology Cognitive biology Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Knowledge Cognition 

Notes

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition ResearchKlosterneuburgAustria

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