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. …