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Evolutionary Analysis

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 thought.

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, 1987) [Click 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 Computers (Winograd & Flores, 1986) [discuss it], one of my favorite books in the field of human-computer interaction and CSCW.


The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976) [discuss 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 (Vygotsky, 1986) [discuss 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. 


(b) Cognitive processes of the individual are internalized versions of social processes. 

For 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 software?


Origin of the Modern Mind (Donald, 1991) [discuss 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.


Rethinking Innateness (Elman et al., 1996) [discuss 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, 1976) [discuss 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. 


The Cerebral Symphony (Calvin, 1990) [discuss 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.) 


Consciousness Explained (Dennett, 1991) [discuss 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: Bantam.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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.

Jaynes, J. (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: Shambhala.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation of Design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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