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Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies


  • Scott Atran

    () (IJN - Institut Jean-Nicod - DEC - Département d'Etudes Cognitives - ENS Paris - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris - EHESS - École des hautes études en sciences sociales - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - Département de Philosophie - ENS Paris - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris)

  • Douglas Medin
  • Norbert Ross


Anthropological inquiry indicates that all human cultures classify animals and plants in similar ways. This pre-theoretical knowledge also provided common ground for competing scientific investigations. Paradoxically, despite rapid advances in biological science, our citizenry's practical knowledge of nature is diminishing. Convenient choice of American and European students as psychology's preferred study populations obscures this fact. Here we describe historical, cross-cultural and developmental research on how people ordinarily conceptualize nature (naïve or folk biology), concentrating on cognitive consequences associated with knowledge devolution. Our approach integrates three disciplinary perspectives. For cognitive science, we show that results on categorization and reasoning from “standard populations” fail to generalize to humanity at large. For developmental research, we find that the usual populations studied represent impoverished experience with nature, yielding misleading results concerning the ontogenetic relationship between folkbiology and folkpsychology. For cultural and environmental studies, we show that groups living in the same habitat can manifest strikingly distinct behaviors, cognitions and social relations relative to it. This has novel implications for environmental decision making and management, including resource dilemmas such as the commons problem.

Suggested Citation

  • Scott Atran & Douglas Medin & Norbert Ross, 2002. "Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies," Post-Print ijn_00000144, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:ijn_00000144
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