“Evolutionary Epistemology”. Who said that? #3

Posted on September 6, 2011


Don Campbell (and Karl Popper)  offered a model that helps explain why  certain ideas or theories are accepted and others ignored or lag. He called the model ‘evolutionary epistemology’.

Evolutionary theory

He relied on the three mechanisms borrowed from  evolutionary theory: 1: a mechanism for generating variability such as random brain activities, different sub-cultures and upbringing, etc; 2) stable selection mechanisms that select those variants that  ‘fit’  or find a niche or fertile ground  in the current ideological or cultural environment; and 3) mechanisms that promote and defend the selected variant or theory (e.g., universities teach it, hire and promote believers.) Regarding the first mechanism  you can think of new ideas  or theories as different seeds (variants) produced by fringe members of their groups –  people who think outside the  box. You can think of the second mechanism as the ground the seed falls upon – fertile or rocky  cognitive territory – are their new ideas welcomed or rejected or ridiculed by peers and cultural gate-keepers,  and you can think of the third mechanism as one that actually promotes and protects the currently popular idea or theory ( Governments provide grant money and journal editors publish it.)

Notice the first and third mechanism are in conflict – the first generating new ideas and the third depriving them of support and journal space while promoting the status quo – current pet theories – thus  blocking out new entrants.

So scientists, or educators, or politicians  or entrepreneurs  with new  ideas  or products that don’t fit or conflict with popular beliefs  see them die on the vine for lack of nourishment, or spend years surviving on the fringes while they gradually attempt to gain a foothold and generate acceptance or support.  It can take years for a novel idea, theory or program to gain recognition in science or in politics while a small group of

Tin Lizzy - Model T

die-hard loyalists nourish and promote it.  Opportunities to gain a foothold arise as the dominant theories start to fragment as believers increasingly sub-divide into small special interest groups that deviate in one way or another from the status quo. You see such fragmentation over time in religious and political movements, as well as in science. Such fragmentations provide an opportunity for previously ignored or rejected ideas of theories to gain visibility and perhaps acceptance.

Can you think of specific examples?  Rock &Roll, “tea party” wing of the Republican Party, Einstiein’s theory of relativity, Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzy, Flight, etc.

Evolutionary theory: flickr.com/photos/fasterthanyouthink/19486469

Tin Lizzy: flickr.com/photos/qcharge/5739345346/

Posted in: Sciencing