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Evolutionary Epistemology

Evolutionary epistemology is an approach that sees knowledge in the first place as a product of the variation and selection processes characterizing evolution. It notes, first, that the original function of knowledge is to make survival and reproduction of the organism that uses it more likely. Thus, organisms with better knowledge of their environments would have been preferred to organisms with less adequate knowledge. In that way, the phylogenetical evolution of knowledge depends on the degree to which its carrier survives natural selection through its environment.

Second, evolutionary epistemology notes that the individual, ontogenetic development of knowledge is also the result of variation and selection processes, but this time not of whole organisms, but of "ideas" or pieces of potential knowledge. Thus, the typical pattern of scientific discovery is the generation of hypotheses by various means (variation), and the weeding out of those hypotheses that turn out to be inadequate (selection).

This analogy between the creation of ideas and Darwinian evolution has been noted from the end of the 19th century on by different scientists and scholars (e.g. Poincaré and William James). It was first developed into a full epistemology of science by Popper, who spoke about "conjectures" and "refutations", and who noted that a fundamental criterion for every scientific theory is that it must be "falsifiable", i.e. able to undergo selection. The whole spectrum of evolutionary knowledge processes, from genetic mutation to scientific model-building, was first analysed by Donald T. Campbell, who also introduced the term "Evolutionary Epistemology".

Campbell's framework rests on three basic ideas:

  1. the principle of blind-variation-and-selective-retention, which notes that at the lowest level, the processes that generate potential new knowledge are "blind", i.e. they do not have foresight or foreknowledge about what they will find; out of these blind trials, however, the bad ones will be eliminated while the good ones are retained;
  2. the concept of a vicarious selector: once "fit" knowledge has been retained in memory, new trials do not need to be blind anymore, since now they will be selected internally by comparison with that knowledge, before they can undergo selection by the environment; thus, knowledge functions as a selector, vicariously anticipating the selection by the environment;
  3. the organization of vicarious selectors as a "nested hierarchy": a retained selector itself can undergo variation and selection by another selector, at a higher hierarchical level. This allows the development of multilevel cognitive organization, leading to ever more intelligent and adaptive systems. The emergence of a higher-level vicarious selector can be seen as a metasystem transition.
To this basic framework, we must add a more detailed analysis of the different mechanisms of variation that create new ideas, of the way in which retained knowledge is stored and organized (knowledge representation), and of the different criteria that determine which knowledge will be selected and which one will be eliminated.

See also: Gary Cziko's and Donald T. Campbell's extensive of Selection Theory and Evolutionary Epistemology

Copyright© 1995 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Jul 14, 1995 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory


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Vicarious Selectors

Knowledge Selection Criteria


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