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

  • Isabella Sarto-JacksonEmail author


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.


Evolutionary epistemology Cognitive biology Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Knowledge Cognition 



  1. Arthur, W. (2001). Developmental drive: An important determinant of the direction of phenotypic evolution. Evolution & Development, 3(4), 271–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arthur, W. (2004). Biased embryos and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bach-y-Rita, P. (1994). The brain beyond the synapse: A review. NeuroReport, 5(13), 1553–1557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beatty, J. (1994). The proximate/ultimate distinction in the multiple careers of Ernst Mayr. Biology and Philosophy, 9(3), 333–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J., & Henrich, J. (2011). The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(Supplement 2), 10918–10925.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bradie, M. (1986). Assessing evolutionary epistemology. Biology and Philosophy, 1(4), 401–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bradie, M., & Harms, W. (2017). Evolutionary epistemology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition).
  8. Callebaut, W. (1993). Taking the naturalistic turn. How real philosophy of science is done. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  9. Campbell, D. T. (1959). Methodological suggestions from a comparative psychology of knowledge processes. Inquiry, 2(1–4), 152–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell, D. T. (1974). Evolutionary epistemology. In P. A. Schilpp (Ed.), The philosophy of Karl R. Popper (pp. 412–463). LaSalle, IL: Open Court.Google Scholar
  11. d’Errico, F., & Stringer, C. B. (2011). Evolution, revolution or saltation scenario for the emergence of modern cultures? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1567), 1060–1069.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Delbrück, M. (1986). Mind from matter. Essays on evolutionary epistemology. Palo Alto, CA: Blackwell Science Publications.Google Scholar
  13. Dretske, F. I. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  14. Edinger, L. (1908). The relations of comparative anatomy to comparative psychology. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 437–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fischer, B., & Mitteroecker, P. (2015). Covariation between human pelvis shape, stature, and head size alleviates the obstetric dilemma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(18), 5655–5660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Freeman, W. J. (1984). Premises in neurophysiological studies of learning. Chapter 13. In G. Lynch, J. L. McGaugh, & N. M. Weinberger (Eds.), Neurobiology of learning and memory (pp. 231–234). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  17. Gilbert, S. F. (2010). Developmental biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  18. Gissis, S. B., & Jablonka, E. (2011). Transformations of Lamarckism. From subtle fluids to molecular biology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Godfrey-Smith, P. (1994). A modern history theory of functions. Noûs, 28(3), 344–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gontier, N. (2015). Reticulate evolution. Symbiogenesis, lateral gene transfer, hybridization and infectious heredity. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  21. Gontier, N., & Bradie, M. (2018). Acquiring knowledge on species-specific biorealities: The applied evolutionary epistemological approach. In R. Joyce (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of evolution and philosophy (pp. 136–155). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Gould, S. J. (1977). Ontogeny and phylogeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar
  24. Gould, S. J. (2002). The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gould, S. J., & Vrba, E. (1982). Exaptation—A missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8(1), 4–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Griffiths, P. E., & Stotz, K. (2000). How the mind grows: A developmental perspective on the biology of cognition. Synthese, 122(1–2), 29–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grunstra, N. D. S., Zachos, F. E., Herdina, A. N., et al. (2019). Humans as inverted bats: A comparative approach to the obstetric conundrum. American Journal of Human Biology, 31(2), e23227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hahlweg, K., & Hooker, C. A. (1989). Issues in evolutionary epistemology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hodos, W., & Campbell, C. B. G. (1969). Scala naturae: Why there is no theory in comparative psychology. Psychological Review, 76(4), 337–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jacob, F. (1977). Evolution and tinkering. Science, 196(4295), 1161–1166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1992). Learning, development, and conceptual change. Beyond modularity: A developmental perspective on cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  32. Karten, H. J. (1969). The organization of the avian telencephalon and some speculations on the phylogeny of the amniote telencephalon. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 167(1), 164–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Klingenberg, C. P. (2005). Developmental constraints, modules, and evolvability. In B. Hallgrímsson & B. K. Hall (Eds.), Variation (pp. 219–247). Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kolodny, O., Creanza, N., & Feldman, M. W. (2016). Game-changing innovations: How culture can change the parameters of its own evolution and induce abrupt cultural shifts. PLOS Computational Biolology, 12(12), e1005302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kovac, L. (2000). Fundamental principles of cognitive biology. Evolution and Cognition, 6, 51–69.Google Scholar
  36. Kovac, L. (2006). Life, chemistry and cognition. EMBO Reports, 7(6), 562–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kovac, L. (2015). Closing human evolution: Life in the ultimate age. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Krakauer, D., Bertschinger, N., Olbrich, E., et al. (2014). The information theory of individuality. arXiv:1412.2447.
  39. Krakauer, D. C., Page, K. M., & Erwin, D. H. (2009). Diversity, dilemmas, and monopolies of niche construction. The American Naturalist, 173(1), 26–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Laland, K. N., Matthews, B., & Feldman, M. W. (2016). An introduction to niche construction theory. Evolutionary Ecology, 30(2), 191–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, J., & Endler, J. (2017). Niche construction, sources of selection and trait coevolution. Interface Focus, 7(5). Scholar
  42. Laland, K. N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., et al. (2011). Cause and effect in biology revisited: Is Mayr’s proximate-ultimate dichotomy still useful? Science, 334(6062), 1512–1516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lewontin, R. C. (1983). Gene, organism and environment. In D. S. Bendall (Ed.), Evolution from molecules to men (pp. 273–285). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Lorenz, K. (1941). Kant’s Lehre vom Apriorischen im Lichte gegenwärtiger Biologie. Blätter für Deutsche Philosophie, 15, 94–125.Google Scholar
  45. Lorenz, K. (1965). Evolution and modification of behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  46. Lorenz, K. (1996). The natural science of the human species: An introduction to comparative behavioral research. The “Russian manuscript” (1944–1948). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  47. Lyon, P., & Opie, J. (2007). Prolegomena for a cognitive biology. In Proceedings of the 2007 meeting of International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, University of Exeter.Google Scholar
  48. MacLean, P. D. (1974). A triune concept of the brain and behavior. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  49. MacLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  50. Margulies, D. S., Ghosh, S. S., Goulas, A., et al. (2016). Situating the default-mode network along a principal gradient of macroscale cortical organization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 113(44), 12574–12579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mayr, E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science, 134(3489), 1501–1506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mesoudi, A., & Thornton, A. (2018). What is cumulative cultural evolution? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285(1880). Scholar
  53. Mitteroecker, P. (2018). How human bodies are evolving in modern societies. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(3), 324–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Mitteroecker, P., Huttegger, S., Fischer, B., & Pavlicev, M. (2016). Cliff edge model of obstetric selection in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(51), 14680–14685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Newman, S. A. (1992). Generic physical mechanisms of morphogenesis and pattern formation as determinants in the evolution of multicellular organization. Journal of Bioscience, 17(3), 193–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Northcutt, R. G. (1981). Evolution of the telencephalon in non-mammals. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 4(1), 301–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution (MPB-37). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Petanjek, Z., Judaš, M., Šimić, G., et al. (2011). Extraordinary neoteny of synaptic spines in the human prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(32), 13281–13286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Pigliucci, M., & Müller, G. B. (2010). Evolution—The extended synthesis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Popper, K. R. (1979). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  61. Rescher, N. (1990). A useful inheritance: Evolutionary aspects of the theory of knowledge. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.Google Scholar
  62. Riedl, R. (1978). Order in living organisms: A systems analysis of evolution. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  63. Roth, G. (2015). Convergent evolution of complex brains and high intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 370(1684). Scholar
  64. Rutten, G.-J. (2017). The Broca-Wernicke doctrine. A historical and clinical perspective on localization of language functions. Basel: Springer International Publishing.Google Scholar
  65. Shannon, C. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell Systems Technical Journal, 27, 379–423, 623–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Skyrms, B. (2010). Signals: Evolution, learning, and information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Smith, J. M. (2000). The concept of information in biology. Philosophy of Science, 67(2), 177–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Smith, J. M., Burian, R., Kauffman, S., et al. (1985). Developmental constraints and evolution: A perspective from the Mountain Lake conference on development and evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 60(3), 265–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Star, S. L. (1989). Regions of the mind: Brain research and the quest for scientific certainty. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Stotz, K., & Griffiths, P. (2017). Biological information, causality, and specificity: An intimate relationship. In S. Walker, P. Davies, & G. Ellis (Eds.), From matter to life: Information and causality (pp. 366–390). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Stout, D., & Hecht, E. (2017). Evolutionary neuroscience of cumulative culture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 114(30), 7861–7868.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Striedter, G. F. (1999). Homology in the nervous system: Of characters, embryology and levels of analysis. In G. R. Bock & G. Cardew (Eds.), Novartis foundation symposium (Vol. 222, pp. 158–172). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  73. Striedter, G. F. (2004). Brain evolution. In G. Paxinos & J. K. Mai (Eds.), The human nervous system (pp. 3–21). Amsterdam: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Striedter, G. F. (2005). Principles of brain evolution. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  75. Thagard, P. (1980). Against evolutionary epistemology. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1: Contributed Papers, 187–196.Google Scholar
  76. Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Tribus, M., & McIrwine, E. C. (1971). Energy and information. Scientific American, 225(3), 179–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Van Duijn, M., Keijzer, F., & Franken, D. (2006). Principles of minimal cognition: Casting cognition as sensorimotor coordination. Adaptive Behavior, 14(2), 157–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Van Schaik, C. P., Isler, K., & Burkart, J. M. (2012). Explaining brain size variation: From social to cultural brain. Trends in Cognitive Science, 16(5), 277–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Walker, S. I., & Davies, P. C. W. (2013). The algorithmic origins of life. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface, 10(79). Scholar
  81. West-Eberhard, M. J. (1989). Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 20(1), 249–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Worden, R. P. (1995). A speed limit for evolution. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 176(1), 137–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wuketitis, F. M. (1990). Evolutionary epistemology and its implications for humankind. New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations