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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper was presented by one of the authors (HDC) at the Philosophical Perspectives on Scientific Understanding Conference, held at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 25–27 August 2005. We wish to thank members of the audience for their useful comments, as well as Bill Brewer, Hasok Chang, Jean Paul Van Bendegem and Johan Braeckman for suggestions to an earlier draft. We would also like to thank Kim Sterelny and an anonymous referee whose comments substantially helped us to clarify and further develop some of the arguments presented in this paper. This research was funded in part by grant OZR916BOF from the Free University of Brussels.

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Correspondence to Helen De Cruz.

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De Cruz, H., De Smedt, J. The Role of Intuitive Ontologies in Scientific Understanding – the Case of Human Evolution. Biol Philos 22, 351–368 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-006-9036-8

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Key words

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