Extended Evolution and the History of Knowledge

Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 20)


This paper provides a framework for analyzing the history of knowledge from the perspective of extended evolution, a conceptual framework that analyzes evolutionary processes as transformations of extended regulatory network structures and is designed to apply to a whole range of phenomena, from genome and biological to cultural and technological evolution. Regulatory networks, such as gene regulatory networks or institutions, control the behavior of individual elements within systems, whether these are genes within cells or organisms or individuals within societies. All of these phenomena can be seen as a form of extended evolution. Our framework is inspired by Ernst Mach, a scientist turned historian and philosopher who developed a distinctly evolutionary conception of knowledge. For Mach the dynamics of highly structured systems of knowledge, such as science, was a logical outgrowth of the evolutionary roots of human cognition. He focused specifically on the role of memory—information from genomes to cultural traditions in present-day terminology—and emphasized how all life forms extract “knowledge” or information through a continuous process of trial and error. As a consequence of these processes of knowledge acquisition, tested “hypotheses” are incorporated into the (genetic or cultural) make-up or memory of each species. Indeed, Mach’s ideas about the cultural transmission of shared or collective memories and the role of institutions in that process are an early version of what we call cultural evolution today (Mach 2011).


Material Culture Regulative Structure Cultural Evolution Joint Attention Cognitive Structure 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper is based on a talk given by one of us (J.R.) at the international conference “Integrated History and Philosophy of Science – &HPS5,” held at the University of Vienna from June 26–29, 2014. We are grateful to Friedrich Stadler for giving us the opportunity to present our approach on this occasion. The paper is based on earlier publications of the authors on related themes listed in the references. We would like to thank Sascha Freyberg , Matthias Schemmel and Matteo Valleriani for helpful discussions from which many of the ideas presented here have emerged. We are especially grateful to Lindy Divarci who carefully edited the text.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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