Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies

By Atran, Scott; Medin, Douglas et al. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies


Atran, Scott, Medin, Douglas, Ross, Norbert, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


As generations of college students learn more about microbiology and evolution, they seem to be growing less and less familiar with the plants and animals around them. Provided below is part of an interview with an Honours student at a major American research university. The student expressed surprise at being told that we had previously undertaken a study in which children as young as 3 and 4 years old had been asked to give examples of plants which they could name. We then asked the student to generate examples herself:

  Interviewer: Tell me all the kinds of trees you know.
  Student: Oak, pine, spruce, cherry ... (Giggle) evergreen, Christmas
    tree, is that a kind of tree?... God, what's the average here?...
    So what do kids say, big tree, small tree?
  Interviewer: Tell me some plants.
  Student: I can't think of plants that aren't trees. I know a lot about
    angiosperms, gymnosperms, gametophytes, and sporophytes ... but this
    is biology. It's not really about plants and trees.

For several years we have been investigating the cognitive consequences of reduced contact with nature--what some refer to as 'extinction of experience' (Nabhan & St Antoine 1993). To get along in the world, people need to be able to understand and predict general properties and behaviours of physical objects and substances (physics), more specific properties of plants and animals (biology), and particular properties of fellow human beings (psychology). This article builds on the findings of research exploring the logic and conceptual frameworks underlying different schemes of folk biology, a term which we use to refer to how people ordinarily categorize and infer relationships about local biodiversity. Our particular concern is with the ways in which these different types of folk biology relate to the loss or degradation of people's knowledge of the natural world.

Our choice and interpretation of methods and models is informed by over a decade of intensive ethnographic, ethnolinguistic, and ethnobiological fieldwork involving an international team of anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, and biologists. A further goal of this article is to show anthropologists how experimental methods and quantitative models can be applied to issues of environmental cognition and management that are central to cultural survival. Without quantifiable replicability, there can be little if any dialogue with either the wider scientific community or with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The danger here is that anthropological information can become marginalized, rather than fulfilling its potential to enrich and inform debate on environmental issues. Yet another of our aims is to show psychologists that replicable cross-cultural analyses involving small-scale societies are not only possible but necessary in any attempt to establish what is and what is not universal in human cognition. This is especially important for education programmes throughout the world.

Evolved universals in cognition and culture

The term folk biology refers to the ways in which humans classify and reason about the organic world. Ethnobiology is the anthropological study of folk biology; one of the key concerns of ethnobiologists is folk taxonomy, a term referring to the hierarchical structure, organic content, and cultural function of folk-biological classifications that ethnobiologists appear to find in every society around the world. Naive biology is a term denoting the psychological study of folk biology in industrialized societies; those engaged in this area of research are often principally concerned with category-based induction, a term referring to the ways in which children and adults learn about, and reason from, biological categories. (1)

We begin with aspects of folk biology that appear to be universal; this will provide the essential context for our attempt to analyse the consequences of diminished contact with nature in the naive biologies of industrialized societies.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.