By Adolf Heschl
Evolutionary epistemology as the ambitious attempt to provide a biological explanation for complex cognitive capacities in human beings is yet far from being accepted by the scientific community as a new and serious discipline. Usually, natural scientists believe that this field of metaphysical speculation has nothing to do with real science. Nevertheless, it can be shown that a consistent integration of epistemology into modern evolutionary theory is possible if one simply eliminates both the existing pure analogies as well as the more hidden Lamarckian elements. The result, however, a scientific epistemology in the original sense of Darwin and Boltzmann, may force us to modify major parts of our self-understanding.
Despite the fact that most scientists adamently reject even the slightest hint that their theory contains Lamarckian elements, it is clear that this is the very point that current evolutionary epistemology is trying to make: namely, to attempt to unite two paradigms (undirected biological, i.e. Darwinian evolution versus directed cultural, i.e. Lamarckian evolution) which, both in theory as well as in everyday practice of experimental research, must be assumed to be incompatible. As a consequence, the problems turn out to be far greater than the concrete solutions for consistently integrating evolutionary epistemology into the modern synthetic theory of evolution. Only two fundamentally different options appear to remain: either we change the current neo-Darwinian paradigm of evolution because a general theory should encompass all features of living organisms, independent of the degree of complexity (and we think that this is not the case), or we try to modify evolutionary epistemology, in particular with respect to its Lamarckian ingredients, to make it better fit modern evolutionary theory. It is surprising, however, that the second option - that is to modify evolutionary epistemology and leave evolutionary theory unchanged - has not yet been considered by anyone. Accordingly, the present argumentation intends to demonstrate that it is in fact possible to sketch out the theoretical framework of a truly evolutionary epistemology.
One of the strongest arguments for conceptually integrating epistemology into evolutionary theory is that those epistemological criteria (incomprehensibility, non-directedness, irregularity) which define true cognitive changes turn out to be identical with the main biological criterium (success-, i.e. natural selection-uncorrelated randomness) defining true evolutionary changes as the basis for potential progress in evolution. Thus, an evolutionarily oriented epistemology is able to confirm the theoretical necessity of random mutations as one of the two basic axioms of modern evolutionary theory. This does not mean that epistemology has now been reduced to a misconceived biology of 'innate capacities', as has sometimes been argued (in fact, little is fully developed at birth and many animals, including the growing human infant, have to pass through a complex cognitive ontogeny). Rather, it means that epistemology can be fully integrated into modern evolutionary biology. Ultimately, this implies that such an extended theory of evolution is at the same time the best scientific epistemology currently available. Popper, Lorenz and Piaget were quite close to the solution, but it was Darwin himself who, many years ago, already anticipated the most promising direction of theorizing: life itself as a cognitive phenomenon.
The consequences for scientific research on human behaviour and, more specifically, human cognition are at least twofold. First, the many 'evolutionary' models developed to explain the supposed Lamarckian aspects of cultural transmission in human society in pure analogy to biological evolution are clearly not the last resort. Secondly, in dealing with the particular status of human cognition in a narrow sense (including all kinds of specifically human imagination and reasoning), we can now expect that both its mechanisms and its assumedly adaptive or, at least, non-inadaptive (i.e. neutral) functions will perfectly fit into evolutionary theory. The most provoking consequences, however, concern traditional philosophical epistemology, inasmuch as these consequences directly contradict most commonly held opinions about the processes underlying learning, thinking and communication. Evolutionary theory, if applied to these domains in a realistic and not merely metaphorical sense, produces unexpected results: neither primitive forms of learning nor most complex forms of thinking are indicators of cognitive progress, and even human symbolic communication as an intricate network of social interaction between individuals must be excluded from being a real transfer of knowledge or information.