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Review of  Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture

Reviewer: Jason Brown
Book Title: Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture
Book Author: Nathalie Gontier Jean Paul van Bendegem Diederik Aerts
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 18.123

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EDITORS: Gontier, Nathalie; Bendegem, Jean Paul van; Aerts, Diederik
TITLE: Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture
SUBTITLE: A non-adaptationist, systems theoretical approach
SERIES: Theory and Decision Library A: , Vol. 39
YEAR: 2006

Jason Brown, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia

This book is a collection of essays that were originally presented at a
conference with the same title held in 2004 at the Vrije Universiteit
Brussel, Brussels, Belgium. According to the publisher, the audience
targeted by this book includes scholars working in fields as diverse as
evolutionary epistemology, philosophy of science, evolutionary
anthropology, evolutionary linguistics, artificial intelligence, and
cognitive science.

The book is a collection of essays on evolutionary epistemology (henceforth
EE), which is a subdiscipline of epistemology that applies the principles
of biological evolution to the study of human cognition and knowledge and
its development. Figures such as Karl Popper are oftentimes cited as
providing the groundwork for EE, though the actual term was coined by
Campbell (1974). Other relevant works include Lorenz (1977), Quine (1969),
Riedl (1977), and Vollmer (1975).


The first chapter consists of a preface by the editors, which provides an
overview of the entire book, including discussions of each chapter. The
chapters are grouped into four general sections: Evolutionary Epistemology,
Evolutionary Epistemology and Language, Evolutionary Epistemology and
Culture, and Evolutionary Epistemology and Modeling. Also included in the
preface is a general introduction to what EE is, how it takes Darwinian
thought seriously, and in what directions it is currently moving.

Introduction to evolutionary epistemology, language and culture, Nathalie

This chapter provides a detailed explanation of what exactly evolutionary
epistemology is. The chapter traces the intellectual development of EE from
the failure of the logical positivists, to the language games of
Wittgenstein, to the movement in sociology of knowledge, up to the
discussion of Quine and naturalized epistemology. There is also a focused
discussion of the relevance of EE to anthropology and the notion of
culture, as well as the field of linguistics. Also of relevance is the
discussion of the conceptual split in EE between Evolutionary Epistemology
of Theories (EET) and Evolutionary Epistemological Mechanisms (Bradie &
Harms 2001).

PART 1: Evolutionary Epistemology

Evolutionary Epistemology: The nonadaptationist approach, Franz M. Wuketits

In this chapter, the author presents the argument that organisms are not
merely passively shaped by their environment, as an adaptationist approach
would say, but rather are actively engaged in their environment. This
active and dependent co-evolution of organism and environment, which are
further linked by feedback systems, has ramifications for EE, especially if
considered from the strictly adaptationist approach.

Like cats and dogs: Radical constructivism and evolutionary epistemology,
Alexander Riegler

The issue of whether radical constructivism and EE are compatible notions
is addressed in this chapter. Under radical constructivism, the focus is
on the autonomy of the cognitive system, and the idea is that an organism
takes an active role and actually has an influence on its own environment.
This is a ''subject-centred perspective'' (51). The chapter then retraces
the history of both lines of thought back to Kant, and discusses the
important similarities and differences. The author reaches the conclusion
that EE constitutes a subset of radical constructivism.

The biological boundary conditions for our classical physical world view,
Olaf Diettrich

The claim of this chapter is that the laws of nature are derivable from our
perceptual experience, and not objective properties of the outside world.
Under this view, natural laws are dependent on the evolution of cognition.
The author uses various examples, including the use of 2D vs. 3D vision to
illustrate these points. It is stressed that ''Theories are rather the
outcome of phylogenetic decisions on our cognitive phenotype guided by
rather elementary requirements such as predictability or to get a feasible
management of our organic capabilities'' (80-81). In this context, the
chapter then turns to knowledge of language and mathematics as further
examples. The chapter concludes by stating that within organic evolution,
the various hierarchical levels that are evident provide the ''boundary
conditions'' for the level that is next higher up.

Is the real world something more than the world of our experience? Relation
between Neodarwinian logic, transcendental philosophy and cognitive
sciences, Adrianna Wozniak

The author argues that if EE adopts the synthetic theory of evolution, then
constructivist speculations can be ruled out of the question. This is
based on the assumptions that EE makes with regard to the synthetic theory
of evolution, and the presupposition that there exists an external world,
and that knowledge has been influenced by this world. The chapter
concludes by pointing out that the concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Also discussed are logic, mathematics, and their ontological status and how
they relate to the broader notions of metaphysical realism and constructivism.

Universal Darwinism and process essentialism, Derek Turner

In this chapter, it is argued that Dennett's (1995) claim that Darwinism
avoids essentialism is ultimately incorrect, since a core belief rests in
what can be considered process essentialism. The author shows that
universal Darwinists are committed to viewing historical and evolutionary
processes in an essentialist way; thus, universal Darwinists can be
considered process essentialists. The chapter goes on to show how this
type of process essentialism is not mandatory, and that universal Darwinism
does not necessarily imply process essentialism.

PART 2: Evolutionary Epistemology and Language

Darwinism, traditional linguistics and the new Palaeolithic Continuity
Theory of language evolution , Mario Alinei

This chapter deals with the content of historical linguistics, and argues
that the basic methodology of historical linguistics is flawed. The author
attributes all instances of language change to corresponding moments in
history of social conflict or strife. The chapter further deals with the
origin and evolution of all of the world's languages, and posits a
parallelism between grammatical structures and the production of lithic tools.

The extended mind model of the origin of language and culture, Robert K. Logan

This chapter claims that the evolution of language can be modeled based on
notions of chaos, and that ''the origin of speech was also due to a response
to chaos and information overload'' (150) of a previous state. This type of
overload leads to bifurcations (cf. Prigogine 1979), which in turn drive
the evolution of language. It is also pointed out how language and thought
act as an autocatalytic system, forming a type of system bootstrap.

From changes in the world to changes in the words, Jean-Philippe Magué

Further exploration of Mufwene's (2001) ''language as species'' metaphor in
an investigation of the evolution of the lexicon is the content of this
chapter. The author uses a multi-agent model to show that multiple
constraints on feature selection processes compete. It is also shown that
one such constraint is the fitness to the environment, which can be
characterized as the driving force behind natural selection.

Evolutionary epistemology and the origin an evolution of language: taking
symbiogenesis seriously, Nathalie Gontier

In this chapter the notion of horizontal evolution is compared with
vertical evolution, and it is argued that it is actually horizontal
evolution that occurs more frequently. A specific form of horizontal
evolution, symbiogenesis, is argued to drive language evolution. This is
illustrated in the realms of language variation, language genes, and
conceptual blending.

The self-organization of dynamic systems: modularity under scrutiny,
Annemarie Peltzer-Karpf

This chapter argues that linguistic development is not a linear process,
but rather encounters ''phases of intermittent turbulence, fluctuations and
stability'' (227). By highlighting evidence from the L2 development of
Turkish, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and German children, the author
illustrates the point that language development is an emergent and
self-organizing process, and that language is influenced by environmental
conditions. This discussion is then related to more general questions of

PART 3: Evolutionary Epistemology and Culture

Against human nature, Tim Ingold

In this chapter, the author discusses the concept of a ''human nature,'' or
what it is to be human. The argument is that there is no such thing as a
universal human nature. The author points out that there is variation
among contemporary humans, as well as differences between these humans and
their predecessors. These characteristics are not due to genetics, but are
rather shaped by development. The resulting differences can then be
attributed to historical processes. Thus, what is presented is a view of
human evolution which is continually ongoing, rather than static.

Cognition, evolution, and sociality, Eugenia Ramirez-Goicoechea
The topic of this chapter is the evolution of human cognition as a process
based in social relations. Working in Dynamic Systems Theory, the author
emphasizes the role of the human as an organism interacting with its
environment. The chapter offers a new theory for EE which focuses on the
generation-to-generation transmission of knowledge as a process of
embodiment and recreation.

Cultural evolution, the Baldwin effect, and social norms, Jean Lachapelle,
Luc Faucher and Pierre Poirier

The Baldwin effect is explored in this chapter, which although is many
times perceived as obscure and misunderstood, can be briefly described as
the behavior of a species helping to shape the evolutionary development of
the species. The authors argue for a reinterpretation of the Baldwin
effect which also incorporates more modern notions of niche construction
(Deacon 1997, 2003). Further, the chapter illustrates how this system
plays a role in the development and evolution of social norms.

Cultural creativity and evolutionary flexibility, Kathleen Coessens
This chapter argues that human evolution and cultural creativity are two
notions that are both linked and dependent on what is termed ''evolutionary
flexibility.'' ''Evolutionary flexibility implies that there are
developments in evolution that defy strict adaptational laws.'' (337) The
chapter discusses how cultural evolution influences natural evolution, and
claims that this flexibility in both cultural creativity and biological
evolution are interwoven, and essentially could lie as the basis for each

Some ideas to study the evolution of mathematics, Hugo Mercier
It is explored in this chapter how cultural evolution contributed to the
development of mathematics. This works on the assumption that natural
selection gave humans certain modules (the author discusses the number
sense and the logical module in this regard), and that these modules were
acted upon by cultural evolution. The author discusses the situation in
Ancient Greece, which can be considered a turning point in mathematical
thought where mathematical and logical rigor gained new importance, and
which can also be considered a product of these two evolutionary forces.

PART 4: Evolutionary Epistemology and Modelling

Computer modelling as a tool for understanding language evolution, Bart de
Boer In this chapter, the author describes the uses of computer modeling in
the study of language evolution. The three main techniques that are used
are discussed: optimization, genetic algorithms, and agent-based models.
The use of measures and statistics are also discussed. Finally, detailed
examples of each of these techniques are given.

Simulating the syntax and semantics of linguistic constructions about time,
Joachim De Beule

The evolution of temporal concepts and their grammatical implementation is
discussed in this chapter. An experiment in computer modeling using
agent-based modeling is performed in order to investigate whether temporal
notions are fixed and universal or evolving. The finding is that both the
syntax and semantics of a given language must be conventional.

Evolutionary game-theoretic semantics and its foundational status,
Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen

Game-theoretic semantics and evolutionary modeling are described in this
chapter. This chapter provides an alternative to strictly
adaptationist-based approaches to EE by providing an alternative to purely
structural or functional approaches to language. The alternative approach
is based on game-related strategies, and the author shows that relations
between assertions and the world are allowed to emerge from game-type

Towards a quantum evolutionary scheme: violating Bell's inequalities in
language, Diederik Aerts, Marek Czachor and Bart D'Hooghe

This chapter argues that there indeed quantum properties to language, in
the sense that Bell's inequalities are violated (Bell's inequalities being
a set of mathematical formulae developed to test the presence of quantum
structures in data sets). The study shows the presence of what are termed
''non-Kolmogorovian probability structures'' in language, which is considered
problematic for a neo-Darwinian conception of evolution based on Markovian
notions. The results of these findings are that a strictly neo-Darwinian
conception of evolution based on adaptation is too limited for EE.


The book presents material on a very interesting and popular topic, and the
material is presented from the perspective of several different
disciplines. The perspectives also range from the completely theoretical
to the methodological. The end result is a truly interdisciplinary
collection of papers and approaches to the topic of EE. While this is
advantageous in the sense that it may bring new arguments to the table and
cast theories in a different light, it is also disadvantageous in that the
overall theme is sometimes stretched to its limits. For instance, some of
the papers seem to have not much to do with EE per se, but more with
tracing ideas to Darwinism, or dealing with the theoretical underpinnings
surrounding Darwinism. Thus, it is likely that not all of the chapters
will be relevant or understandable to a given audience. On the other hand,
a number of chapters, typically those that belong in a particular thematic
section of the book, may be found to be highly relevant by a researcher in
a given subfield.

There are further problems with the interdisciplinary approach of the book.
Most objectionable is the fact that while ''language'' is what the book is
partly about, many of the articles don't seem informed enough about
linguistics. To some extent, this holds true for most of the discussions
about L1 and L2 acquisition, historical linguistics, syntax, and the
evolution of language. This may be a bit of a disappointment for the
linguistics-oriented audience.

There are also many problems with typos, errors, and especially English
language mistakes in the book. While these can be overlooked for some of
the chapters, they become overwhelming for the reader in others, sometimes
to the point of impeding the content of the chapter.

Finally, a highlight of the book is the many papers dedicated to computer
modeling and simulation. de Boer's chapter stands out as a very useful
reference in this regard, and the chapters that follow prove to be
interesting in the same way. It seems that computer modeling is the
strongest approach to EE currently, and Part 4 capitalizes on that strength.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of papers that addresses an
interesting topic. Researchers working around the theory of EE will find
the book most beneficial.


Bradie, M. & W. Harms 2001. Evolutionary epistemology. In Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Campbell, D.T. 1974. Evolutionary epistemology. In Schlipp, P.A. (ed.), The
philosophy of Karl Popper, Vol. I. Illinois: La Salle. pp. 413-459.

Deacon, T. 1997. The Symbolic Species. New York: W.W. Norton.

Deacon, T. 2003. Multilevel selection in a complex adaptive system: The
problem of language origins. In B. Weber & D.J. Depew (eds.), Evolution and
Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 81-106.

Dennett, D.C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of
Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lorenz, K. 1977. Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human
Knowledge. London: Methuen.

Mufwene, S.S. 2001. The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Prigogine, I. 1979. From being to becoming: Time and complexity in physical
sciences. San Francisco: Freeman.

Quine, W.V.O. 1969. Naturalized epistemology. In Ontological Relativity and
Other Essays. pp. 69-90. New York: Colombia University Press.

Riedl, R. 1977. A systems-analytical approach to macro-evolutionary
phenomena. The Quarterly Review of Biology 52:351-370.

Vollmer, G. 1975. Evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie. Stuttgart: Hirzel.

Jason Brown is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of British
Columbia. His research focus is on phonological theory, with special
interests in the phonetics-phonology interface, phonological
representations, and feature theory. He has also published work on
language evolution.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 140203394X
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Pages: 493
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