The Evolutionary Analysis of Knowledge
Anyone interested in learning – including figuring out
how to design computer support for learning – might learn some useful insights
from a theoretical approach that might be called the “evolutionary analysis of
knowledge.” This document is intended as a brief guide to some of the
literature on this fascinating and expansive body of theory. This theory is a
very contemporary approach to fundamental questions of the nature of human
knowledge, language, and consciousness. The selection of specific books and the
summaries of them are, of course, based on my own experience: what I enjoyed
reading, what I got out of the books, and their significance for my own work and
These books are all important contributions within their
own fields of biology, psychology, and philosophy, yet they are all written in a
popular style that presupposes no specialized background. They require careful
reading and an open mind. They present controversial arguments in their own
disciplines and it is up to the reader to decide what to make of the claims as
well as how to apply them to your own concerns. In general, I found them all
generally convincing, despite the fact that they each make outrageous claims.
The Tree of Knowledge
(Maturana & Varela,
here to discuss this book]. This provides a nice overview of evolution. It
could be well used to collect a set of terminology for discussing evolution.
Although it is often associated with New Age thought, this text actually
provides a very clear, highly scientific view of the biological roots of human
cognition. In addition, with original concepts like that of “autopoiesis”,
the book goes significantly beyond traditional, reductionist biology to stress
the relationship between and organism and its environment. Thus, it can provide
a theoretical foundation for understanding contextual phenomena. It is in this
sense that it plays an important role in Understanding
& Flores, 1986)
it], one of my favorite books in the field of human-computer interaction and
The Selfish Gene (Dawkins,
it]. This is a fun book by an important innovator in evolution theory. It
focuses on the gene, rather than the organism, as the entity that strives to
survive, adding a provocative twist to the evolutionary outlook. It also makes
extensive use of computer simulations (artificial life). Dawkins is a charming
writer and introduces the reader effortlessly to controversies such as his
theory of punctuated equilibrium (also discussed in his Blind Watchmaker).
Thought and Language
it]. Perhaps the most important book on learning that approaches its topic
from a theory of how thought and language evolve in the development of the child
within social settings (with parents, teachers, peers). The presentation is
somewhat long-winded because it is motivated by critiques of the leading
theories of his day, most notably Piaget. Since much recent psychology is still
strongly influenced by those theories and their focus on the isolated individual
(e.g., in the lab), Vygotsky’s insights are still fresh and relevant. Here are
two of his principles:
(a) One cannot understand cognitive processes unless one
analyses how they developed, both in society and for individuals.
processes of the individual are internalized versions of social processes.
instance, one learns new ideas by hearing others articulate them, starting to
integrate the terminology into one’s conversation, gradually gaining a deeper
understanding of the meaning of the terms, and finally using the concepts in
one’s own thought. Vygotsky analyzes how the nature of knowledge changes as it
passes through these different stages. For instance, even the syntax of
formulations changes as they are variously articulated in external media,
dialog, self-talk, thought. This raises questions about how computer software
should represent ideas for learning and how social practices should be
structured to facilitate development and transformation. How does the computer
medium change the nature of knowledge and can these changes be designed into the
Origin of the Modern
Mind (Donald, 1991)
it]. Donald provides a tour de force
of anthropological and psychological evidence documenting the development of our
intellectual abilities. Since our current mental skills combine forms of memory
and thought that emerged at different stages, the evolutionary picture he
provides may be the best way to understand how people learn, recall, and process
knowledge. The book concludes with a discussion of the all important and rapidly
increasing role of external memory, including computer support. Anyone who still
thinks that thought is a process performed by isolated individuals should read
this: Donald persuasively argues that most ideas in the past couple thousand
years were only possible because of external representations, and that makes
these ideas social products. He cites both science and philosophy as being major
social dialogs that go far beyond the capabilities of an individual. Perhaps
this is what computers should be supporting: community cognition.
(Elman et al., 1996)
it]. The connectionist perspective on development presented here combines
results of neural network simulations with brain science and linguistics to
argue that the brain of a human infant is rather loosely structured. Thus, our
mental skills – most notably linguistic skills – evolve as the child moves
through developmental stages within supportive environments. Perhaps that is why
those of us who grew up before VCRs still cannot program them. What software
should your two-year-old be using to develop the right mental skills?
Drill-and-kill or shoot-em-up?
The evolution approach to knowledge leads the interested
reader into a rich and growing literature concerned with social development,
neurological development, and the origins of consciousness.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Jaynes,
it] combines a social history with neural science (especially studies of
split-brain patients) to propose an intriguing view of consciousness as a rather
recent social product.
Symphony (Calvin, 1990)
it] also combines social history (actually prehistorical speculations) with
neuroscience to argue why consciousness would have been a survival advantage for
early humanity. (Good reading during your vacation at the shore.)
it] is one man’s view on a number of the current issues in the philosophy
of consciousness. It is a stimulating and perhaps too easy-to-read introduction
from someone who is conversant with philosophy and with computers (a combination
that I respect).
Calvin, W. H. (1990). The Cerebral
Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness. New York:
(1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. C.
(1991). Consciousness Explained.
Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company.
(1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three
Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Elman, J. L.,
Bates, E. A., Johnson, M. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett,
K. (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A
Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
(1976). The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston, MA: . Houghton Mifflin.
Maturana, H. R.,
& Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of
Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA:
(1986). Thought and Language.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
& Flores, F. (1986). Understanding
Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation of Design. Reading, MA:
Go to top of this page
Return to Gerry Stahl's Home Page
Send email to
This page last modified on
January 05, 2004